A 7–2 start by the Yale women’s basketball team has put the memories of a disappointing 2015–16 campaign behind them.
The Bulldogs finished sixth in the Ivy League last season in head coach Allison Guth’s first year at the helm of the program. Guth, however, now has the Elis trending upwards, thanks to an intense defense and a versatile attack. Yale’s defense has been the primary catalyst for this year’s success, surrendering nearly nine fewer points per game compared to last season. Coupled with a more balanced lineup, this improvement has led to success in road games and crunch-time situations.
“I think this year, it’s about [the fact] that we all came in together, … [and] we knew what we wanted,” forward and captain Elizabeth Haley ’17 said. “Our goal is to win an Ivy League [Championship], and there wasn’t as much of a learning curve as last year. We all came in together [and] knew what hard work we had to put in to get our goals.”
From the start of the season, Guth preached a commitment to defense as the goal for this year’s squad. Although the defense took a couple games to take shape — the team ceded 56.7 points per game over its first three games — it has clicked over the Bulldogs’ current six-game winning streak that has seen the team allow just 52.0 points per game.
The defense has benefitted from increased focus and intensity. From the first possession of the game to the last, the Bulldogs can be heard screaming assignments across the floor and communicating on the defensive end.
“We come into every game and we’re like, ‘we’re just going to go nuts on defense and have a lot of energy,’” guard Lena Munzer ’17 said.
Yale has also averaged close to seven more rebounds per contest while the number of blocks and steals has fallen. Although not ideal, these trends tell the story of a team that has bought into the philosophy of sound, fundamental defense rather than a riskier approach predicated on blocks and steals.
In accordance with the adage that defense travels well, Yale has fared much better on the road with a 4–2 road record so far, already a notable improvement from the team’s 2–11 away mark last year.
“We had a very challenging schedule and grinded it out [last year],” Guth said. “Some of those losses you learn more from, and we actually played great basketball in some of those losses against Dayton and North Carolina. They were tough opponents. I think this year I’m proud of the way that we’ve been able to convert on the road and in close games.”
As Guth alluded to, Yale has seen its fair share of tight contests this season with two overtime victories and two other games decided by a margin of six points or fewer.
A more varied scoring attack has contributed to the Bulldogs’ success in close games, easing their reliance on one single player. Last season, second-team All-Ivy guard Nyasha Sarju ’16 headlined the offense, averaging nearly 16 points a game, third-most in the Ivy League. Sarju, however, was forced to shoulder much of the offense herself as only one other Eli contributed more than 10 points per contest.
In Guth’s second season, four upperclassmen are scoring above the double-digit plateau, providing more options when one player is struggling. In Yale’s 71–70 overtime nail-biter on Nov. 27, guard Meghan McIntyre ’17 provided a crucial boost off the bench, netting six three-pointers as part of a 22-point explosion. The production filled the void left by Munzer and guard Tamara Simpson ’18, who combined for just eight points. On Saturday’s overtime tilt against Albany, though, Munzer and forward Jen Berkowitz ’18 were responsible for 40 of the Bulldogs’ 64 points.
“I think that what we’re finding is that our offense is an equal-opportunity offense that allows different players to score,” Guth said. “[It] opens it up for everyone and becomes less of a pressure situation, and we’re able to convert down the stretch.”
Although the Elis have demonstrated significant improvements in key facets of the game, some red flags remain. Most glaringly, the team is shooting at just a 58.8 percent clip from the free throw line this year, as contrasted with a 70.6 percent mark in the 2015–16 campaign. They are also turning the ball over at a higher rate.
Struggles from the charity stripe nearly cost Yale the game against Albany when Simpson and guard Mary Ann Santucci ’18 missed four consecutive free throws in the final two minutes, leaving room for the Great Danes to claw back and force overtime.
“Our team is very skilled … from the free throw line, [but] we’re not showing that right now,” Guth said. “It’s something that we focus on, … but I think when you get a couple of those games where you get inside your head, you just have to get to the line. You’ve got to get in the gym and practice.”
To succeed in close matchups in spite of these flaws is a testament to the strength of the Eli defense, which has helped make up for lost possessions. At this point last season, Yale posted a 5–4 record although the team eventually conceded nine consecutive games in the conference season.
As the nonconference season winds down, the Bulldogs will put their aggressive style of play and multi-faceted offense to the test once again when they face off against Boston College on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the John J. Lee Amphitheater.