Athletics & Recreation / Magazine Feature

Women’s team aims to do better with more

The DU women's basketball team is looking forward to next season. For starters, they'll have more players. The team managed a winning record during the 2009-10 season despite competing with a roster of no more than nine players.

Today’s pop quiz is a math question. If the DU women’s basketball team can win 18 of 31 games this season using only six to nine players, how many games next season can the team win with 15 players?

Hint: Two players graduated but seven return next year. One veteran will be back from knee injury, a blue-chip transfer will be eligible and six shiny new freshmen recruits are inbound from California, Nebraska, Minnesota, Washington and Colorado. That totals 15 eager Pioneers.

Unsolvable problem, you say? Tell that to head coach Erik Johnson. He’s the one who week after week this season had to figure out how as few as six players were going to sprint fast enough to keep up with opponents whose depth allowed their best players adequate rest.

It wasn’t easy to solve.

“There were lots of times where one of my starters would get tired and I’d just call time out,” Johnson says. “I couldn’t sub them.”

Nor could he play as aggressively as he wished.

“I really wanted to mount more defensive pressure, but I thought, ‘If I do, Kaetlyn [Murdoch] is going to be out of the game with fouls or we’re going to be so tired that by halftime, we’ll be done.’”

Scratch that strategy.

More fast-breaks, maybe? Nope.

“That other gear just wasn’t there,” he admits.

Which raised in Johnson’s mind the metaphysical question: “Is as fast as you can run for 37 minutes as fast as you can run for 27 minutes?” Translation: Is it better to rest a star and play her fewer minutes or play a star longer on little rest? Hmmmm. “I’m proud of how we managed it, but, boy, there were a lot of challenges.”

Like matching up DU players with the team they faced. Johnson didn’t worry about matchups much because, well, who he had in the lineup was pretty much everybody he had. Nor could he hold his players accountable for maximum effort.

“It’s human nature. If you know you’re going to be out there all day, you can’t muster that same level [of energy], so we have a tendency to play a little bit safe.”

Except that “a little bit safe” isn’t DU women’s basketball. It’s relentless pressure and speed. So Johnson and company emphasized defensive rebounds and surgical time-outs and offensive efficiency and questioning the time keeper and picking fights with the ref and any other trick he could think of to rest his starters and keep DU in the game.

It worked pretty well. Eighteen wins and two rounds into the Sun Belt Conference post-season tournament proved that.

“At no time did they ever quit or get lazy,” Johnson says proudly looking back. Still, it wasn’t unusual for his team to come limping into practice, so battered, bruised and spent from a previous game that all they could do was shoot free throws, talk strategy and recover.

Which is why the theme for next season is “no compromise,” Johnson says. “Next year, we’ll have that depth, and my job is going to be how to use it to our advantage without disrupting some of the really good things we did this year.”

Among those “really good things” was making their shots, at which DU women excelled, finishing second in the nation in field-goal percentage at 48.2 percent. They also were second in the nation in fewest number of fouls per game (12.9) and 15th in free-throw percentage at 76.

“If we can add the elements of more transition shots, more turnovers by the other team, more offensive rebounds, we have a chance to be pretty good,” Johnson says. All that plus be a “great defensive rebounding team and shoot high percentage with really good assists.”

In other words, do better with more instead of trying to do better with less. He figures having 15 players ought to be a big help. No matter how many games the team plays.

Do the math.

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