Head coach Charlotte Smith has been telling the Elon University women’s basketball team the keys to success so often, she knew the team would get sick of it.
But in Smith’s eyes, defending well and cleaning up as many rebounds as possible are too important to ever let the team forget.
“You have to set goals, and it has to be something that’s on the forefront of their minds,” Smith said. “The only way you can do that is by repeating it and repeating it, over and over, until it becomes something that they buy into.”
Now, as the 27-6 Phoenix prepares for the school’s first-ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament, it’s become clear that Elon is doing both things better than it ever has before in Smith’s time.
“We were kind of tired of hearing her drill it in our head, but at the end of the day, we got it and we locked in,” said senior guard Lenaira Ruffin. “Once everybody became part of the process, locked in and knew what we had to do to win, it felt great. Words cannot describe how it feels to be able to do all those things and be consistent.”
In winning the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) title, the Phoenix had its two best defensive performances of the season in the CAA Tournament, including holding conference stalwart James Madison University to 22.8 percent from the field in the championship game Saturday, March 11.
“I truly believe that our defense against JMU was the key factor in winning that game,” said junior guard Shay Burnett. “Coach was really proud of us for our defensive intensity that game.”
Even Smith — who called herself “the coach who’s never satisfied” after Elon held Hofstra University to 28.8 percent two days earlier — couldn’t help but express her pride in what was the best single-game defensive performance against a Division I school in five years. The last time Elon forced an opponent into a worse shooting night was Feb. 20, 2012, as the College of Charleston shot 22.7 percent. The pursuit of those numbers is a key for Smith.
“It’s gratifying, especially when they’re looking for the stat sheet,” Smith said. “When they’re looking for, ‘Did we hold them under 40 percent?’ That’s when you have the buy-in, when they’re looking for the stat sheet not to see how many points they scored, but to see if we held them under 40 percent.”
Overall, Elon’s defense sits near the top of the NCAA leaderboard is a variety of categories. The 58.5 points per game allowed ranks 54th in the country. Meanwhile, opponents make just 35.3 percent of shots taken against Elon, which ranks Elon as the 15th-best defense in the country by that measure.
Elon also has been able to rebound at an elite level in the national scheme. Elon’s 1,388 rebounds ranks 10th nationally, with the 42.06 rebounds per game checking the Phoenix in at 26th. Elon also out-rebounds its opponents by an average of 6.8 rebounds per game, which is 25th-best margin in the country.
What has surprised Smith most about the defensive approach has been how simple Elon has been able to keep things.
“What’s interesting is that we only play one style of defense: man-to-man. We don’t do a whole lot of fancy stuff. We’ve committed to playing man-to-man defense, and that’s what we’ve stuck with all year,” Smith said. “I would have never thought in a million years that we would just play man-to-man and that’s our sole defense.
“We don’t press. We don’t play zone. It’s just half-court man-to-man. And it works. I think sometimes, you can try to do too much and be the jack-of-all-trades and the master of none. I feel like we’ve done a pretty good job of mastering half-court man-to-man defense.”
Smith says Elon only makes subtle adjustments based on who the Phoenix faces, liking to plug the gaps on driving teams or deciding to be more aggressive in passing lanes. The Phoenix sent a bunch of help at James Madison redshirt senior guard Precious Hall in the final, harassing the CAA Player of the Year and forcing her to take 33 shots and nine free throws to score 32 points.
“Honestly, we didn’t want her to take that many shots, but she just took tough shots,” Smith said. “It was like, ‘Ok, if she’s going to take any shots, at least they’re tough ones and challenged ones.’ It worked out in our favor that she decided to take a lot of tough shots.”
It was the second-straight game that redshirt senior guard Essence Baucom took the task of guarding Hall and shut her down and delivered, with the only difference in Smith’s eyes being that Baucom was able to avoid foul trouble.
“Precious is a great offensive player, and we knew that pretty much everything was going to run through her,” Baucom said after the game. “I just tried to stay level-headed and grounded. I knew she was going to hit a couple of tough shots, but we just were determined to not let one person beat us. I just forced her into tough situations, and just live with the result.”
While Elon was able to hold the number so low, Burnett remembered that Smith said she could never be satisfied. Sure enough, in the time leading up to the selection show, Smith watched the title game film and came away with a lot to learn.
“I just finished watching the JMU film, and I swear, I have about 45 defensive teach clips,” Smith said. “I texted the team and said, ‘See? I told you I could find some. Now I’m going to have to spend the next hour going through all of them and try to figure out which ones to eliminate.’ It’s funny.”
Even if she believes Elon can do better than it did, Smith still sees the team’s drive to defend and rebound as something that makes them a dangerous team to face in the NCAA Tournament.
“Defense, that’s the thing you can control, and rebounding is a thing you can control,” Smith said. “When you get them buying into those things, and you already have an offensively talented team, you have a triple-threat.”