LINCOLN — The key strand of the Nebraska women's basketball team's DNA is coach Connie Yori's in-your-face, man-to-man pressure defense. It's what she's rebuilt the Huskers to do since she arrived. The motto: NU's 10 players will hound and wear out the opponent's seven players, and reap the benefits in points off turnovers.
But early in the Big Ten Conference schedule this winter, Yori didn't have 10 players at her disposal. Because of injuries, she's had, on average, eight. And one of those players, senior Meghin Williams, has such an injured right foot that, many days, “it feels like I'm walking on nails.”
The pressure defense takes numbers. It takes foot speed. The Huskers didn't have a lot of either, stumbling to a 2-3 league record out of the gate.
So Yori scrambled the DNA. Switched to a defense that she used to consider a figurative four-letter word: zone. And then she reworked the zone into more of a man defense that's far more passive than she prefers.
It worked. A nine-game winning streak proves it. So has holding the last three opponents — Ohio State, Michigan and Iowa — to 39, 39 and 46 points respectively. That's 28, 23 and 22 points below those teams' usual scoring averages.
“I think it was the right move for where we were at the time,” junior forward Jordan Hooper said.
If the trend continues Thursday night at Wisconsin, No. 20 Nebraska could hold another team under 40 points — the Badgers average only 58.4 points per game — and rip off a 10th straight league win. At nine wins, it's already NU's second-longest streak under Yori, who watched her 2009-10 squad sweep through the Big 12 undefeated.
Switching defenses “takes playing with your brain a little bit more to play personnel than to play with a system,” Yori said. “Whereas a system was pretty built in — it doesn't matter what you do, this is what we're going to do — we're playing as if, well, it does matter what you're going to do.”
NU's gone from forcing the opponent to adjust to the Huskers' defense to dissecting and defusing an opponent's offensive game plan. The Huskers pay more attention to how and where an opposing guard wants to drive the ball. They're more aware of which opponents aren't offensive threats and so can be left alone.
In Yori's preferred defense, a punchless opposing guard might be swarmed 25 feet from the basket even though she's not a threat to shoot a 3-pointer. Against Michigan — which had the nation's top 3-point shooter in Kate Thompson — NU defenders sagged off another Wolverine to consistently provide help defending Thompson, who missed 15 of 17 shots.
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“We made it harder for her to get the looks she wanted to get,” Yori said. “We basically chased her everywhere.”
Nebraska may not have been able to make this midseason defensive switch last year, Yori said, because of inexperience. But now, Rachel Theriot is the only freshman in the rotation. All other Huskers have at least an offseason under their belt, and point guard Lindsey Moore — who spearheads the defense — is a senior who's never missed a start.
Moore credited Yori and the staff — who made a similar switch in 2011 without as much success in the win-loss column — for getting creative.
“It says a lot about the coaches that they're willing to change and mold their style of defense to the type of team we have,” Moore said. “And with the health that we've had with the team. ... The coaches have had to make do with what we have.”
Nebraska's now in position to catch Penn State for the Big Ten regular season title. Two games behind, NU needs the Nittany Lions to lose Thursday at Minnesota to have any chance, and then beat PSU Sunday at the Devaney Center.
And, of course, beat Wisconsin. The Badgers are 11th in the league — just 3-11 in conference games — but six of those losses came by single digits. UW is also the only Big Ten team to beat Penn State.
“Wisconsin's real deceptive,” Yori said.
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