Defensive prowess proves crucial in CSU’s yearly success

Luke Zahlmann

A brick wall has been laid layer-by-layer since recruitment for Colorado State University women’s basketball and has been the catalyst for their dominance in coach Ryun Williams’ tenure.

Being the less flashy of the two avenues to winning, Williams has preached defense to each and every player that has come through the Rams’ system, and the philosophy is paying off in a season when they need it most.

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a player puts her arms up to defend an opponent
Hannah Tvrdy defends a University of New Mexico player during the State Pride game on Saturday, Jan. 27. The Rams beat the Lobos 74-71 in overtime. (Ashley Potts | Collegian)

The Rams have spent their time in the upper echelon in the nation in defensive prowess for the past four years, culminating in this year’s effort.

In a year where the Rams have failed to truly ignite their offense for much of the year, their defense has come to the rescue and been a roadblock for other teams. The class of the Mountain West, the Rams have only allowed their opponents a mere 55 points per contest, good for 12th in the nation.

“The four years I’ve been here, defense has always been what we’re about,” Hannah Tvrdy said. “I think that’s engrained in all of our minds (that), ‘Yeah, we wanna do well offensively, and that’s been a big push for us.’ But defense, we know that’s expected of us every game.”

In a world fueled by the outside shot, the Rams have chosen to take their success by way of uncharted territory. Running several defensive concepts, the Rams have developed chemistry that allows them to switch their scheme possession by possession, causing confusion for their opposition.

“(Mixing it up) helps a lot,” Veronika Mirkovic said. “Sometimes we’ll go just for one possession to play with their minds a little bit and then go back to man and vice-versa.”

In his near six-year tenure for the Rams, Williams has preached defensive dominance in route to his 130 wins, most in CSU history. The philosophy has given the Rams a distinct edge throughout the season while their offense warms up and gives them a leg up once the crucial games in the Mountain West tournament come around.

Though the dominance has only netted them one tournament championship in Williams’ stint, they have been able to capture the regular season title four years in a row.

In a season after the Rams lost their two offensive stalwarts to graduation, Williams has molded his team to rely even more heavily on the defensive end. Leaning on each player to do their part has spread from the offensive end to the defensive and the Rams have kept pace even when their offensive was a bottom dweller in the conference.

Limiting turnovers has been a main focus for the offense, but the trend has yet to convert to the defensive side as the Rams have failed to force an overwhelming number. Despite the lack of turnovers by their opposition, the Rams are fourth in the nation in opposing field goal percentage (33.8 percent).

Junior Sofie Tryggedsson defends Brecca Thomas during the first quarter of the game against Colorado on Dec. 6, 2017. The Rams lost in a tough battle 70-67 in Moby Arena. (Julia Bailey | Collegian)

The Rams’ zone look has allowed their agile guards and forwards to lock down the outside, forcing their opposition to go inside. The disallowance of 3-pointers has converted to wins for the 15-7 squad, a number rarely possessed by a team with so much turnover in the offseason.

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“(Defense) is important and it has won us a lot of games,” Stine Austgulen said. “It’s won us some championships here and (we) just play the game plan. We always have a good game plan.”

The mastermind behind the team’s game plans is Williams who has had success at nearly every stop along his coaching path. He has coached his teams to the best conference winning percentage in the Mountain West’s history during his stay at CSU. The run has also included the most consecutive regular season titles in conference history.

In what had previously been an underwhelming part of CSU athletics, women’s basketball has flourished under the tutelage of Williams and continued their success through multiple graduating classes. This constant success has created trust in the process within the team.

“We have new people coming in and we’re still able to keep the defense set up,” Austgulen said. “It starts with coaches and what they do. We practice (our system) every day, even in preseason and it’s obviously helping us out.”

Constant plugging in of players has only highlighted the Rams’ focus on defense as they have continued their lockdown ways regardless of the lineup on the floor. With ten players averaging double-digit minutes, the Rams have continued to excel with each player who steps on the floor, a true indication of the prominence of defensive excellence.

The Rams’ stalwart defense will be tested often as their season winds down and their push for another conference championship comes from behind rather than their typical front-running ways.

Collegian sports reporter Luke Zahlmann can be reached at sports@collegian.com or on Twitter @lukezahlmann.