Can’t spell Colorado Mesa without the ‘D’

Defensive focus has been key for Mavs all season

Colorado Mesa’s man-to-man defense has made life tough for opposing teams and the Mavs’ athleticism makes switching off picks easier.

When Taylor Wagner was hired as the Colorado Mesa University women’s basketball coach, he knew he had talented players.

The biggest question he had was whether that talented group of players would take to his system, specifically his defense-first philosophy.

The Mavericks had been playing match-up zone, so the trick was to get them to adapt to man-to-man.

“I was kind of worried at the beginning, to just see how they would adjust to it,” Wagner said. “At times I think we struggled just being physical and making sure we’re bumping cutters and those things, but we picked up on it really well.”

Ranked seventh in the nation in scoring defense (53 points per game), CMU (28-1) is third in the nation in scoring margin. The No. 4 Mavericks are winning games by 20.6 points per game entering the NCAA Division II South Central Regional tournament, which tips off at noon Friday at Brownson Arena. The top-seeded Mavs play eighth-seeded Fort Lewis (18-10) at 6 p.m.

The Mavericks quickly ditched the zone for Taylor’s man defense, especially Sharaya Selsor, whose job it is to defend the best perimeter player every night. That often means she’s on the floor from the opening tip to the final horn.

“The thing that I love most about it is at the end of the day, Coach Wagner doesn’t preach to make the fancy block or the fancy steal,” she said.

“Our job is to make defense easy for our teammates. A lot of times I’m guarding the point guard, and when I’m guarding her, my job is to create a steal for my teammates. When the ball gets passed, that’s that person’s job. In a zone it’s really hard to do that.”

Selsor struggled at times in the match-up zone because of her aggressive nature. Playing man lets her do what comes naturally.

“With man, you can stop your player and you can really help,” she said. “It’s easier to reach your defensive potential. When you’re in a zone it’s almost like you’re limited to what you can do defensively. That was really hard for me.

“I had a hard time in the match-up. I would do the defense wrong because I was always wanting to (be more aggressive). I was taking too many chances in the match-up, and in the man I feel I’m able to reach my defensive potential.”

Her defensive potential will be tested Friday against Fort Lewis College and her assignment, point guard Katerina Garcia. It will be the fourth time this season Selsor has drawn the assignment, the third time in the past three weeks.

Only 5-foot-5, Garcia can handle the ball, pull up for jumpers, hit 3-pointers, penetrate the lane and draw the defense to her and dump the ball off to open players. In short, she’s a defensive nightmare.

“She’s obviously faster than me,” Selsor said. “I’m kind of a mismatch, because she is truly just so much faster. My job is: I have to be smarter. I know how I’m going to approach all the situations I need. I’m going to get film, and I need to watch exactly what she does.”

It might take the Mavericks a couple of possessions to pick out what their opponents want to do offensively and know how to adjust the defense accordingly.

“It’s different with different teams and their personnel and what we want to accomplish out of it,” Wagner said. “Sometimes, from game to game to make that adjustment, it takes one or two times. I told the girls our main thing is: If we work hard, we’re gonna cover up our mistakes.

“They’re going to get shots, and they’re going to score. But are you going to give them really good looks and high-percentage shots, or are you going to try to contest everything and bring their shooting percentages down a little bit?”

The answer: bring down the percentages. Teams shoot 34.4 percent against the Mavericks, which ranks 16th in the nation. From the 3-point line, that number drops to 24.6 percent, second-best in the country, and Mesa’s 9.2 rebound margin is No. 5 in Division II.

When he started installing the defense, Wagner started at ground zero.

“The thing we start with every year is the closeout,” he said. “That’s the first line of defense. If you can’t close out, if you get beat off the dribble or they shoot over the top of you every time, you can’t play. That’s kind of what we start with, and from there we work in everything else.

“A lot of people call it muscle memory, and after a season they come back in the fall, they’ve forgotten it. It’s easy to get out of the habit over the course of the year.”

That’s why, three days before the start of the national playoffs, the Mavs were running a full-court closeout drill, sprinting to a spot on the floor, throwing their hands up high, feet always shuffling.

Watch Wagner on the bench, and although he’s locked in on both ends of the floor, he’s demanding effort and energy on the defensive end just a bit more than offense.

“As a team and a coach, you are what you preach,” he said. “We talk about defense all the time, so we’re good at defense. If we didn’t talk about it, we probably would be bad at it. If you emphasize certain things, that’s probably who you’re going to become.”


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