NORMAL — Early in her first season as Illinois State women’s basketball coach, Stephanie Glance employed a zone defense after made shots and man-to-man defense after misses.
Glance had seen enough of ISU’s man-to-man to know she didn’t want to see it all the time.
“We had to get a lot more aggressive on our man-to-man defense,” Glance said Monday. “Until that happened, I felt like we needed another defense.”
The Redbirds have since unearthed that aggression to a degree that the zone has been shelved and the man-to-man has become instrumental in a third consecutive march to the semifinals of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.
ISU has allowed just 58.2 points per game and held opponents to 33 percent shooting in four WNIT games entering Wednesday’s 7:05 p.m. matchup with Southern California at Redbird Arena.
“We have become a really good man-to-man defensive team,” said a beaming Glance. “The biggest thing is we are playing really great team defense. We’ve gotten so much better at this over the course of the year.”
ISU senior point guard Amanda Clifton said during the early stages of the season Glance was trying to figure out what the Redbirds were capable of, and the players were attempting to discern what their head coach wanted.
“One day, our defense just got better, and we haven’t gone back to zone,” Clifton said. “We’re playing the kind of defense she wants us to play, aggressive and in your face. We’re not a very athletic team. But we hustle and we work hard.”
Glance has seen the Redbirds improve in all aspects of its defensive effort.
“We put more pressure on the ball, we defend dribble penetration better than we did, we rotate quicker and give early help,” she said. “All of those factor into a really good defense because you’re shutting down all areas.”
Arkansas coach Tom Collen was impressed with the ISU defenders after his Razorbacks shot 26.6 percent in Sunday’s 60-49 quarterfinal defeat.
“They played an excellent basketball game. We were guarded more like the way we were in the SEC,” said Collen. “In the run we’ve made in the NIT we just haven’t been guarded like that. We knew they were a good defensive team coming in. Credit to them.”
Glance believes a team approach to defense is crucial for the Redbirds, who frequently face a height disadvantage inside.
“That’s how we’re able to build a wall behind the ball. We have a great presence,” she said. “You look at how are we able to defend bigger players. You can’t do that if you don’t understand positioning and how to help each other. That’s a part of it the team has really grasped and they are aggressive doing it.”
The Redbirds are 24-3 when shooting a higher percentage than their opponent and 0-7 when they do not. One of those seven came in the quarterfinals of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament as the defense temporarily regressed in an 80-51 thrashing inflicted by Indiana State.
“That was a reality check,” said Clifton. “We realized if we didn’t step up our defense our season wasn’t going to last much longer.”
Nearly three weeks later, the Redbird defense has turned from a liability to a season-extending asset.