NORMAN, Okla. -- Defense wins championships. Three simple words are engrained in athletes on perhaps every sports team, excluding the Harlem Globetrotters, as their unofficial mantra. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. Just twice in the last 10 years has an NCAA Women’s Basketball champion fell outside the top 15 percent of scoring defense. Half of that span, the champion ranked within the top two percent.
The University of Oklahoma women’s basketball team opened its 40th season as it has annually under the guidance of head coach Sherri Coale…by learning defense.
The official start of practice brought “Camp Guard ‘Em” back to the practice courts at the Lloyd Noble Center Tuesday, Oct. 1. It’s the first of two week-long on-the-court seminars -- one focusing on defense and the other, “INDOC,” short for indoctrination, focusing on offense -- that Coale uses to instill fundamentals and terminology the team will use to seek championships.
“’Camp Guard ‘Em’ is learning defense,” redshirt freshman guard Maddie Manning said. “It’s just building day by day. We start out with fundamental and simple defensive transition and each day we’ll build on it. We stress communication a lot.”
Defensive communication is critical to a program that is often pitted against many of the toughest offenses in women’s college basketball. The Sooners’ strength of schedule last season rated 12th toughest, one of its lower rankings in the past decade. This year, OU will face NCAA Tournament teams such as Duke, UCLA, Creighton, Marist and Stetson and other Preseason WNIT opponents -- that's just the first six weeks of the season.
“It’s about communication and all up in your face chaos,” sophomore forward Kaylon Williams said. “We like to confuse people.”
Over the past three seasons, OU has held 35 opponents below 60 points, relying on their full complement of players and surviving attrition from injuries and graduations. For everyone to contribute, everyone must buy in to the team’s keys.
“We have four non-negotiables,” Williams said, “and they are: talk, run, stop the ball and protect the basket. Later on in the week we’ll learn about kind of a block-shaped area. There’s a little area we call the garden and we don’t want the ball to get to the garden so we have to protect it.
“A lot of other schools started today. We are along in that group but I feel like this is the time when we separate ourselves in this one week of defense and next week when we work on offense.”
Though the Sooners return the core of their 2013 Sweet 16 team, including four of five starters, the group introduced their style of play to six newcomers.
“We started with some basic stuff like knowing your man and how to talk and letting people know where you are supposed to be. We worked on our positioning for half-check and full-check in full court transitions because it gets a little chaotic during the game. You have to match up with people find who you’ve got, let other people know who you have.”
Fellow Midwest City, Okla., native and freshman guard Gioya Carter was one who had more to get comfortable with than just understanding a new vocabulary.
“It was fast paced,” Carter said of her first collegiate practice. “I’m not really used to that. This was really structured and really fast. I asked a lot of questions.
“I know for me, in high school, you just worked on one single thing and you did it for maybe two hours and here if you screw up, you’re probably not going to much playing time. Here you have to be on top of it and if you can’t get it, your find someone to help you work on it after practice.”
One aspect of teamwork was built before practice began. The Sooners’ camaraderie bonded during the summer as newcomers were incorporated into offseason workouts.
“I really like this year’s team because of our different personalities,” Williams said. “We literally have like 14 different personalities and it’s pretty funny because during the summer you kind of allow yourself to get know those people and how they react to certain things and I feel like I know everybody pretty well.
“I feel like we’ve gotten to the point where we know what makes everyone tick, what makes them go, what brings them up, what brings them down. So working with that this year is pretty great to know how to help our teammates.”
Leaving your story better than you found it is the lasting legacy of Oklahoma women’s basketball players. This week, the Sooners entered a new chapter and are drafting the finest expectations for its conclusion.
“We made it to the Sweet 16 last year,” Williams said. “We’re thinking Final Four or National Championship this year. So we’re just building on the foundation we had from our older guys and guys last year. Whitney (Hand) and Lyndsey (Cloman) and them left a good foundation for us to work hard and left some good edge for us to build on this year to get to our new guys coming in. I feel like we can build from that. It’s been going great so far.”