After seeing his team struggle to put the ball in the basket last season, Greenwood girls basketball coach Justin Bennett figured there had to be a better way.
The Woodmen have plenty of talented multi-sport athletes, but how to best take advantage of that and put together a winning team?
Defense has been the answer.
Taking a cue from the success enjoyed by the boys teams in recent years, Greenwood’s girls have started to build an identity around stopping opponents from scoring — and it’s paying off. The Woodmen, now 10-9 after Tuesday’s 38-26 victory over Southport, are allowing just 39.6 points per game.
Their current five-game win streak is their longest since the 2015-16 season, when Indiana All-Star Holly Hoopingarner was still around.
Bennett said that the key has been getting the girls to accept a defense-first mentality.
“I think it is all with the girls buying into it,” he said. “We came into the summer saying, ‘Okay, you know what? We’re going to have a change of mindset, and it’s got to be on the defensive end. It’s hard to get kids to buy in on wanting to be a defensive team nowadays; they want to run and gun and shoot 3s. But this team bought into it.”
There was, admittedly, some reluctance at first, especially after a frustrating 1-3 start. But once the approach began to pay dividends, starting with a 45-28 home win over Whiteland on Nov. 16, the players gradually came around.
“It was a struggle at first, because it kind of brought us down, not getting what we wanted on offense,” junior guard Lily Howe admitted, “but after the first Whiteland game, that got us in with the defense. … That gave us a lot of confidence.”
With the exception of Franklin, the top scoring Class 4A team in the state, nobody has scored more than 54 points against the Woodmen this season. Only three teams have cracked the 50-point mark; five opponents, including three of the last five, have failed to reach 30.
Having an athletic lineup has helped; many of Greenwood’s regulars play more than one sport, and they’re putting that athleticism to use. Sophomore Brooklyn Bell, a 6-foot-1 forward, gives the team a shot-blocking presence but can also go out and guard on the perimeter. Quinn Kelly, another 6-footer and the lone senior on the team, can do the same.
Their defensive flexibility enables the Woodmen to stay in man-to-man roughly 90% of the time.
“I love man, and I love guarding even the 1, because it is a challenge,” Kelly said. “It challenges me to be faster and push myself. Games throughout the season, I’ve had to guard a 1, and they may have been faster than me, but that just challenges me … be a step quicker, read their eyes and read their hips on where they’re going to go.”
Along with that versatile size, Greenwood also has scrappy, athletic guards up front who are capable of disrupting opposing offenses before they ever get settled into their halfcourt sets. Howe and fellow juniors Emily Metzger and Josie Ochsner, both All-County soccer players, each average at least a steal and a half per game.
The quick feet that help Metzger and Ochsner excel on the soccer pitch also come in handy when pressuring the ball on the hardwood.
“That really helps me in basketball,” Metzger said. “It’s a quick game, constant movement. There’s really not a lot of stoppage when the game gets going.”
“I really like to pressure the ball and not give them any room to move,” Howe added, “and everyone’s always up in the gaps, so we get a lot of tips. We just like to always make them have to put it on the floor and not make the passes easy.”
While the quickness helps Greenwood’s defenders to stay in front of people and not have to rely so much on switches, Bennett feels like the biggest difference this season has come from added strength that has enabled the players to get more aggressive.
“Our girls have gotten stronger, they’re more mature and we’re really physical,” the coach said. “We can pick up full-court, we can pick up halfcourt, we switch everything, and I think it just goes back to them sticking to their assignments. So I would say our brand of ball, it’s gritty. We talk about the Woodmen Way and it being gritty; they’re really physical at times, and I think that bodes well for us. And it’s not a bad physical — we play smart for the most part, and we like to get into people.”
That gritty, physical defense should make the surging Woodmen a team that nobody wants to deal with come sectional time. They’ve got an opportunity to build more momentum as they close out the regular season with three straight road games, starting with tonight’s contest at Decatur Central — and their confidence seems to be peaking as they head toward what figures to be a difficult sectional.
“We know we have good competition, so we’re really pushing ourselves,” Bell said. “We’re getting those wins and we’re happy with them, but we’re definitely moving on to the next.”
“Obviously, we want this win streak to keep going,” Metzger added. “We’re pretty confident with how we’re playing and we want to continue on the path we’re going. We do have a hard sectional group, but we’ve improved as a team from the beginning of the year and I think any team we play now in our sectional, it’s going to be a close game.”