Defense, depth key Muskies' perfect start
Athletics - posted on 12/14/2009
Nine games into the 2009-10 season, the Lakeland women's basketball team is among the Northern Athletics Conference leaders in several statistical categories, including scoring offense (second), scoring margin (second) and field goal percentage defense (third).
However, there is one important statistic the Muskies have yet to record - a loss.
Lakeland is off to the best start in program history with an unblemished 9-0 record, including a 5-0 mark in NAC play. The previous record was held by the 1983-84 team, which started its season 6-0.
On Thursday, the Muskies knocked off North Division rival Edgewood, 66-61, after losing the five previous contests against the Eagles. Three days later, Lakeland shot just 35.8 percent from the field, but defeated Concordia Chicago, 50-47, on the road.
Despite shaky offensive performances this season - the team ranks 10th in the league in field goal percentage - Lakeland is relying on a full-court pressure defense to create offense and keep opponents in check.
As a result, the Muskies are first in the conference with 15.4 steals per game, and lead the league with a plus-8.78 per game turnover margin. They force 28.1 turnovers per game, which is also first in the league.
"Coach (Teri) Johnson has done a good job of making sure we know that defense wins games," said senior forward KC Blahnik, who leads the team in scoring at 14.6 points per game. "Our defense creates our pace and our offense. Coach Johnson has stressed defense since the first day of practice."
Johnson, the team's third-year head coach and a 2000 Lakeland graduate, said she has preached defensive consistency all season and has stressed intensity in practice. She pointed to senior guard Terra Hiben, whose impact is felt beyond the box score, as an example. Hiben averages a modest 1.8 points per game, but averages 24.0 minutes and is 10th in the conference with 2.2 steals per contest.
"There are certain players that bring out the best in our team," Johnson said. "Terra Hiben doesn't get the credit she deserves because her defensive intensity pushes others."
Depth is another cog behind the Muskies' fast start. Nine Lakeland players average more than 12 minutes per game, while 10 players have appeared in all nine games so far this season. Johnson believes the team's depth has helped the Muskies push the tempo in games and has increased the quality of practice.
"Going nine or 10 players deep helps us stay fresh, and it brings competitiveness in practice," Johnson said. "That competition is important to our progression and improving our mental toughness. It shows our players' willingness to make their teammates better."
After losing just one senior from the 2008-09 team, which went 17-9 overall, much of the Muskies' core returned this season with another year of experience, while several new players have emerged as vital contributors.
Johnson has started the same group of four seniors and one junior in each contest this season. That kind of consistency has helped the Muskies settle comfortably into their roles.
"Last year, those players weren't ready for the roles they were given," Blahnik said. "The biggest thing is that people are stepping up. We don't have the same leading scorers every game, so it's good that the team doesn't rely on just one person."
The Muskies are just over half way to the school record for consecutive wins, which was set when the 2001-02 team won 17 straight contests. However, Lakeland players and coaches remain concentrated on what is coming next - a trip to California for games against Occidental (Dec. 20) and Redlands (Dec. 21).
"We've got to stay focused mentally," Johnson said. "We're winning right now, so we'll have kind of a target on our back. We have to have fun with the position we're in right now and we can't be afraid.
"We have a great opportunity going into every game, and it's a great challenge for our players to face. We're going to find a lesson in every game."
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