This isn’t the first Drew Olson-coached team to feature a devastating press. But it just might be the best at executing it. Director of Athletics Devin Smith likens this pesky Bulldog squad to “gnats at a picnic.” You can only stand them for so long before you decide to pack it up and go home.
The four-quarter stress Concordia places upon teams can sometimes feel like more of a 40-minute root canal than an actual basketball game. Back on Jan. 25, the Bulldogs and Hastings were tied going into the fourth quarter. Concordia wore the Broncos down while dominating the final quarter.
“We played hard for 30 minutes and stayed right with Concordia,” Hastings head coach Jina Johansen told the Lincoln Journal Star afterwards. “You can practice for their press and their speed. But you can’t prepare for 40 minutes of what they do. That’s why they are (ranked) No. 2.”
On Wednesday, Appalachian Athletic Conference tournament champion Bryan College was the latest team to get dogged by the press. The Lions turned it over 32 times and the Bulldogs cruised to a 101-66 win in the opening round of the national tournament.
The 2016-17 edition of Concordia women’s basketball has been even more smothering than the 2014-15 group that made a run to the national title game. This year’s team has forced an average of 26.9 turnovers per game and has held opponents to a shooting percentage of 35.5. Those figures are just a bit better than the ’14-15 squad that became the first in school history to cause more than 1,000 turnovers in a season.
“It’s a really special group,” Olson said back in mid-January. “You can’t get ahead of yourself because they haven’t accomplished the things that the great teams have. I’m confident in saying this is one of the best defensive teams I’ve ever seen. The 2011-12 team was really good defensively and probably had better athletes. But this new style that we’re playing feeds into this group’s talent and athleticism. This is a very good group.”
Perhaps hidden behind the typically impressive offensive numbers, the Bulldog defensive tenacity is what has really been the backbone of the program. Over the past six years, Concordia has garnered four GPAC defensive player of the year awards. Junior guard Mary Janovich is the latest to collect such accolades.
What’s remarkable about this year’s team is that it adjusted to some new wrinkles after the season already began. Eleven years into his head coaching tenure, Olson possesses the genius – and the guts – to tweak the system that had long been proven successful. After a 72-64 loss to defending national champion Marian University (Ind.) in the season opener, Olson scrapped his preferred man-to-man tendencies for a zone press. With Janovich serving as the most relentless among the gnats, the Bulldogs have abused opponents all season long.
“Obviously this year is different because we have been running a zone instead of man-to-man like we have in the past,” Janovich said. “I just think that this zone fits our team better than a man press would and it's a high-risk, high-reward thing.”
The press has been bolstered by reinforcements. This team has a totally different look than the one that fell in the first round of the 2016 national tournament when Janovich was sidelined with an ACL tear, Dani Andersen sat out redshirting and Philly Lammers was still a senior at Millard West High School.
Olson has the perfect complement of players both in the starting lineup and off the bench. Every single starter averages more than 1.5 steals per game. You might think the press is all about the harassing guards in the backcourt, but the likes of Lammers and Quinn Wragge are just as important. Their length allows them to jump passing lanes and get deflections that often equate into easy buckets in the other direction. It’s not always perfect. There’s risk involved that sometimes leads to layups for the opposition, but Concordia is well schooled in what it does.
“Coach Olson does a great job with us of being able to adapt our press to any kind of press break a team throws at us,” Wragge said. “With teams figuring our press out we have had to change some things and he always does a good job of leading us to a place where even in the middle of a game we are ready for something new that they will try.”
There are times when simply breaking half court is a chore. The stat isn’t kept, but Concordia has forced numerous 10-second violations because of the chaos it creates. It starts at the top with roadrunner-like Andersen as well as Janovich, Shelby Quinn and the bench mob of Devin Edwards, Laurel Krohn and company. Most teams eventually snap under the pressure.
“It's awesome knowing that even if a team breaks the press once or twice, we can still see in their faces that it's frustrating to have to continue to try to break the press,” Andersen said. “Many teams get worn out and start to break down.”
Other teams wear out, but the Bulldogs don’t. No player averages more than 23 minutes per game. Olson isn’t afraid to go 15 deep – and he’s not afraid to keep the press on late in contests that are already decided. Why? Because how else will freshmen such as MacKenzie Helman and Riley Sibbel be ready to step into bigger roles in the future?
There’s always a method to Olson’s madness – and it’s driving opponents mad.
Said Wragge, “We are usually able to get something out of it because we just fly around. We have so many girls that can play and that know what to do.”
UP NEXT: For the fourth time in national tournament history, Concordia and Cardinal Stritch University (Wis.) (25-6) will meet up. The two sides will go head-to-head in the second round inside the Tyson Events Center in Sioux City, Iowa, at 10:15 a.m. CT on Friday. The Wolves advanced by toppling IU Northwest (Ind.), 71-57, on Wednesday.
More of a half court team, Cardinal Stritch also possesses a stingy defense. Among all NAIA Division II teams, the Wolves rank fifth in scoring defense (56.3) and 15th in field goal percentage defense (.359). They limited IU Northwest to 37.3 percent shooting. In the first-round victory, junior guard Maranda Huibregtse went off for 25 points while playing all 40 minutes. Senior guard Nicole Fenner also played all 40 minutes and totaled 15 points. The team’s leading scorer this season has been 5-foot-11 sophomore Kelli Schrauth (16.6 ppg).
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs blew away eighth-seeded Bryan College (Tenn.), 101-66, in the opening round. Playing in her first career national tournament game, Andersen led Concordia with 18 points on 7-for-16 shooting from the field. Krohn got the start in place of Janovich and put up a career high 13 points. Brenleigh Daum added 11 points off the bench.
The winner of Friday’s game will advance to the quarterfinals and play either second-seeded Davenport University (Mich.) (31-3) or third-seeded University of Jamestown (N.D.) (26-5) at 1 p.m. CT on Saturday. The games can be seen live via NAIAnetwork.com. They can also be heard live by tuning into 104.9 Max Country radio (commentators Tyler Cavalli and Devin Smith).
Previous national tournament meetings with Cardinal Stritch
2013 – L, 60-66
2012 – W, 69-48
2005 – W, 65-51