Girls basketball: Amherst’s defense paying dividends

Staff writer

Published: 1/22/2023 12:23:21 PM

Modified: 1/22/2023 12:22:54 PM

South Hadley dribbled the ball up the floor and surveyed the court, looking for an open pass. Amherst’s defense swarmed all over them, shutting down passing lanes and putting the point guard on her heels. The Tigers tried to move the ball, but weren’t fast enough – Amherst’s Tessa Kawall swooped in, stealing the rock and moving like lightning down to the other end, putting in an easy layup that brought the bench to its feet.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

The girls basketball team put on a defensive clinic against South Hadley on Thursday night with a 74-27 victory, demonstrating just how far their defense has come since the first time this year’s group stepped on the floor. Limiting the Tigers to just 27 points was not an easy task, especially considering the Tigers’ signature tenacity. It’s something that the group had been honing in on in practice, and it showed against South Hadley.

“Lately we’ve been really focusing on defense in practice. That’s been a big thing for Ralph. He’s wanted to up our defensive game and I think that our defensive intensity just elevated tonight,” Amherst’s Audrey Bowen said. “We were really hyping each other up, really supporting each other on the bench. The bench energy was incredible and you could feel how each time we got to steal, it would roll over to the next and it was just great energy all around.”

It hasn’t always been that way for this year’s Hurricane squad. Though they started the season on a three-game winning streak, they fell into a rut where they lost three of four contests, and they didn’t just lose them – they let their opponents offenses fire on all cylinders. In the three losses to Bedford, Pinkerton Academy and Holyoke, their opponents averaged over 70 points a game, highlighted by the loss to the Purple Knights that finished with a 76-63 score. 

“I think that we usually pride ourselves on keeping teams to a low score. Ralph likes to say he never really likes for teams to go over 40 or 50 or so and we let Holyoke score 70-something against us. I think that was the wake up call,” Bowen said. “Even though we kept pace with them, letting them score that much in the first place, (it) was like, ‘We need to change something, we need to work harder at this, we need to get better.’” 

That wake-up call took the whole team back to the drawing board. The team drilled in practices, going back to the very basics of defense, to get the group back on track. The group was especially struggling with one-on-one defensive assignments, so they broke that down too.  

“Just because a lot of us are long doesn’t mean we have good fundamentals. So we’ve spent a lot of time the last couple of weeks really hammering down on our defensive principles,” Amherst’s Sara Hastie said. “Especially in (man-on-man), we did not handle screens well earlier in the season. Now I think we’ve really focused in on how we can pressure in man and make it a lot better.” 

Their game against Holyoke was a turning point for the Hurricanes – since that game, they’ve dropped just one game since, a three-point loss to Hoosac, but held their opponent to just 42 points in the defeat. They’re currently riding a four-game winning streak, and during that time have outscored their opponents 240-160, not allowing anyone to score more than 50 points in any game. 

Better defense has led to a better offense, highlighted mainly by Amherst’s knack for intercepting passes and forcing turnovers, whether that’s running out the shot clock or forcing a panicked player to make a mistake, traveling or stepping out of bounds. If the ‘Canes can keep their defense on lock for the rest of the season, their opponents are going to have a tough time finding any easy looks against them.