Riding a nine-game winning streak into this weekend's Pac-12 Conference Tournament, the Colorado women's basketball team has its defense to thank for its recent run and No. 18 national ranking.
Whatever else follows in the postseason also is likely to hinge on how serious the Buffaloes stay about their 'D' - and coach Linda Lappe and her players don't see that as a problem. The Buffs are as locked in on locking down opponents as Lappe ever could have imagined three springs ago when she was named CU's head coach.
"Defense is a big staple in this program," said guard Brittany Wilson. "I think defensively we're one of the best teams in the nation."
If not the nation, most certainly in the Pac-12. In conference games, CU trails only Stanford in scoring defense (51.5 to 53.1 points a game) and is second only to the Cardinal in field goal percentage defense (31.4 percent to 35.3). CU seasonal records are in jeopardy in both categories; the school's standing mark for all games in scoring defense is 56.8 (1996-97), while the all-games record for field goal percentage defense is 35.8 (1980-81). CU has allowed its 29 opponents to shoot only 34.8 from the field and has held a school-record 12 of them under 50 points.
Upon Lappe's arrival from Metro State in April 2010, Defense 101 was a mandatory course for every Buff. Three seasons later, "We understand positioning, we understand our responsibilities, the scouting report . . . and we've been much more consistent with our rebounding," Lappe said.
On Day One, she continued, "We started to implement our defense and that starts with a simple stance, where you need to be in position on the floor . . . it's a big deal to make sure we have one of the best defensive teams in the conference. Our players take a lot of pride in that and it's refreshing to see that. It's helped us win a lot of games."
And perhaps a lot more. The Buffs also are in the Pac-12's top three in rebounding defense (third), rebounding margin (second) and steals (second) - all of which contribute to the kind of eyelash-to-eyelash defense Lappe has wanted. She's getting it this season because of players like "B-Wil" and an able supporting cast has totally invested in her philosophy.
Don't think the Pac-12 coaches weren't taking notice of CU's strong defensive posture this season. They selected Wilson to their conference's All-Defensive first team, with three other Buffs - Rachel Hargis, Chucky Jeffery and Arielle Roberson - receiving honorable mention. CU's four players recognized for their defense were the most for any team in the league.
Wilson has become Lappe's lockdown artist in the backcourt, usually drawing the assignment of guarding the other team's most prolific guard. Lappe said the 5-7 Wilson, a junior, has improved markedly from last season - and this season's improvement started early.
Against San Diego State in Game 4, Lappe called Wilson's shutdown job against Aztecs point guard Chelsea Hopkins "kind of a breakout defensive game, and she kept it going from there." Averaging nearly nine assists a game, Hopkins was limited to one and forced into nine turnovers in CU's 67-53 win. She also was held to seven points.
Five games later, Wilson was matched against then-No. 8 Louisville's Shoni Schimmel - she was held to four points, two assists, four turnovers - and more recently Washington's Jazmine Davis, the Pac-12's second-leading scorer (19.2 ppg). In CU's 68-61 win on Feb. 24, Wilson limited Davis to nine points on 2-for-13 shooting and forced her into making five of UW's 13 turnovers.
A Wilson-Davis rematch could be looming Friday night in the Pac-12 tourney's second round; No. 5 seed UW plays No. 12 seed Oregon on Thursday, with CU getting the winner on Friday (9:30 p.m. MST, Pac-12 Network).
"I usually come out and try to set the tone defensively on the first play," Wilson said. And when she doesn't, she said her teammates now "get on me to help them respond better . . . we're focused on (defense) and we're understanding other people's offensive schemes, where they're scoring and we're trying to take that away and force them into things they're not comfortable doing."
The level of Wilson's 'D' has risen sharply, said Lappe, because Wilson has coupled her athleticism and tenacity with "understanding offenses and where she needs to be . . . there are a lot of quick players who can't play defense because they don't understand how to get through screens, what they're going to see and tendencies of personnel. She's understanding all of those things this year and it's allowed her to be our best guard defender."
Wilson's help in the front court has come from a number of teammates, among them Hargis. With seven blocked shots against Louisville, the 6-4 junior was one short of the CU single-game record in that category. Hargis' defensive strides have been every bit as big as Wilson's, and Lappe has counted on Hargis to set a "toughness tone" throughout the season.
"Obviously, toughness has a lot to do with defense," Hargis said. "My teammates see that and they want to pick their defense up as well . . . I think that's what sparks our whole offense. Getting steals and stops is what we're all about."
Lappe credited Hargis' low-post defensive improvement to Hargis stopping the "over-moving" that she was guilty of in her freshman and sophomore seasons. "She'd be in position then she'd take herself out of position," Lappe said. "This year she's done a much better job of staying steady and understanding our defense.
"It usually takes about a year and a half to two years to understand the defense and what you're going to see on screens and what different post players are going to do. This year she's understanding that."
Playing the percentages might hint that U-Dub will be CU's Friday night opponent in what amounts to a home game for the Huskies, although the tournament will be played in KeyArena, not the on-campus Alaska Airlines Arena. Some of Lappe's players might be ready to buy into that speculation but their coach isn't.
"You never know . . . it's tournament time," Lappe said. "Last year No. 12 (Arizona) beat No. 5 (UCLA) in the first round, so you never know. Yes, we beat Washington the first time we played them, but Oregon is playing better now . . . anything can happen at this time of year. We're not banking on either one; we're preparing for both and some of the different things that they do. We'll play whoever wins."
Whoever that is will find the Buffs unwilling to yield too many points or uncontested shots. "Defense wins games," said Brittany Wilson, and CU's record backs her up.