Defense comes first for coach Bud Childers and the Winthrop Lady Eagles basketball team.
It is defense that got Winthrop 20 wins last year. It is that stifling defense that earned Winthrop the No.2 spot in the Big South preseason poll. It's the defense that is beginning to gel with the team at full strength and three games to go before the conference schedule starts.
Winthrop finished 20-12 last year and was ranked second nationally in field goal percentage defense at the end of the season. The only team ahead of them in that category was national runner-up UConn (36-2).
If you make it really hard for the other team to score, you are going to have a good chance to win a lot of games. That's Childers' philosophy, and that's why he loves the statistic.
"We preach contesting every shot. Make the offensive player make a tough shot," Childers said.
Wednesday afternoon, after practice, Childers remembered hearing Larry Bird -- then the head coach of the NBA's Indiana Pacers -- speak at a clinic. He talked about field goal percentage defense.
Bird and the Pacers had an elaborate chart that listed every NBA player's shooting percentage in three categories (uncontested, slightly contested and strongly contested). Bird told the clinic participants that NBA players hit 60 percent of their uncontested shots. Their effectiveness dropped to 42 percent when slightly contested and ranged between 30 percent and 35 percent when strongly contested.
Bird's words left an impression on Childers.
"If the best players in the world only make 30 to 35 percent when they are strongly contested, it stands to reason we should gear up to keep a person from getting an uncontested shot," Childers said.
Winthrop held opponents to a .339 shooting percentage a year ago. They set the tone early in the season.
Through the first seven games last year, the Lady Eagles limited opponents to .304 (126-of-415) from the floor. The hard-nosed, contest-every-shot mentality has translated into a 5-2 start in 2007-2008.
This year, the team had to deal with the suspension of three players four days before the season began. The Lady Eagles struggled in the season opener and lost, 61-40, to Davidson at the Winthrop Coliseum.
But the team has rallied and owns a 4-3 record. The next game is Dec. 18 against Georgia Tech in the Bahamas Sunsplash Shootout. Georgia Tech has lost twice this season, to UConn and Texas. They might be ranked in the Top 25 when they meet next Thursday.
Winthrop's defense has been solid except for the first half against Davidson. The Lady Eagles are ranked 55th in the country in Childers' favorite stat. Opponents are hitting 36.5 percent from the floor (148-of-406).
Their ranking could improve now that the team is back at full-strength.
"Coach Childers just puts such an emphasis on defense. We have to do it his way; hands up, don't slap at the ball," senior guard Tiffany Rodd said.
Rodd is one of the players Childers points to that has come a long way defensively.
Senior center Jennifer Walker is another. She loves contact but wasn't used to Childers' ways when she arrived from Walters State Community College last year. She is an aggressive player and picked up quick fouls last year.
Childers stresses discipline on defense, and Walker is understanding that now.
"Coach has us play hard on the ball and focus on keeping the player from going middle," Walker said.
Winthrop will never lead the league in blocked shots under Childers. He teaches his players to hold their ground and defend shots with two hands straight up. You will see his players, especially the juniors and seniors, use the strategy in every game.
Shelly Hankins is considered the top defensive player on the team. She is a great on-the-ball defender, but she didn't come to Winthrop with that label, she had to earn it.
"I never heard that before I came here. Coach Childers would tell me I had the quickness to be a good defender. He wanted me to step up that part of my game. He teaches a lot of technique," Hankins said.
"It is a hard technique to instill in players. It's hard to get them to understand it. (Ashley) Fann and (Ashley) Haugtvedt have gotten really good at it. (Ashley) Cox and (TaQuoia) Hammick are working on it," Childers said.
"We strive to hold teams to 30 to 35 percent every night. It is the two-point shots we really have to defend well. The drives, the pull-ups, the inside shots and post-ups. We want to push them out to an area where they aren't quite as comfortable and then be disciplined on defense between the player and the basket."