Opposing ballhandlers better be careful when squaring off against the Yale women’s basketball team, as the Bulldog defense — led by guard Tamara Simpson ’18 — is always looking to rip the ball away. For Simpson this season, stealing the ball has been second nature.
By the end of the 2016–17 season, Simpson had already taken the reins as Yale’s all-time leader in steals. That season, she won the 2016–17 Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year award, grabbing a league-leading 79 total steals. Her single-season total ranks second only to her record-breaking 90 steals the year before. Now, in her final collegiate campaign, Simpson has continued to dominate on the defensive end of the floor and solidified herself as one of college basketball’s elite defenders.
“I never anticipated becoming nationally ranked and breaking records in this statistic but it is exciting and rewarding,” Simpson said. “At the end of the day, I still find that I’m that same little kid [from my younger years] who just wanted to play basketball and help her team.
At the beginning of her senior year, Simpson has continued to set the gold standard for steals. Currently, she has 306 career steals, 95 more than Kathleen Offer ’96 — the second-best mark. This season, Simpson ranks third in the nation, averaging a career-high 4.6 steals per contest. Her career average stands at an incredible 3.0 steals per game.
During this year’s campaign, Simpson has already stolen the ball 74 total times, placing her seventh in the nation and putting her on pace to obliterate last season’s tally. Her current career high for steals in a game is nine, which she has reached on three occasions in her time at Yale, including twice this year. With at least 10 more games remaining for the Elis this season, it may only be a matter of time before Simpson reaches double-digit steals.
Due to the staggering rate at which Simpson has climbed the all-time steals ladder, one might think her defensive abilities were a natural part of her game from the start. But Simpson said she developed her defensive tactics as a way to compensate when facing more athletic opponents.
“As I was usually not the fastest athlete on the floor, I had to find more creative ways to keep up with the player I was defending,” Simpson said. “I began employing somewhat sneaky, and often risky, tactics to anticipate passes. A lot of times it meant straying away from traditional defensive practices that are usually taught by coaches and trainers.”
According to Simpson, she hasn’t always been the most skilled player on her teams either. To make up for that, she prioritized her defensive effort in order to contribute to her team and earn more playing time.
“She is so quick with her hands and knows where to be at the right time,” guard Roxy Barahman ’20 said. “It is really incredible. She makes the defense think she’s not there, but then she comes out of nowhere.”
For Simpson, stealing the ball provides a spark of confidence on the offensive side of the court. After swiping the ball away from unsuspecting victims, she often finds herself running a solo fastbreak, which leads to easy, momentum-initiating points at the other end of the floor.
As her defensive prowess developed over the years, Simpson’s signature ability to take the ball away and ignite transition offense for her team became a key aspect of her offensive game. As her scoring ability later blossomed, Simpson solidified herself as a lethal two-way player, and opponents have had to respect her on both ends of the floor.
Not only is Simpson the Bulldogs’ leader in steals, but she has elevated her offensive production to the point where she is the team’s leading scorer. She is averaging a career high 15.7 points per game, up from 9.6 last season.
“Tamara’s aggressiveness and energy on the defensive end fuels us,” forward Jen Berkowitz ’18 said. “When the other team goes on a run, it takes one or two steals from Tam to completely turn the tempo of the game in our favor. She has put us back into games when we are down and secured those that have been close. I’m not quite sure how she does it. Her ability to read other players is the best I’ve ever seen. I’m certainly glad I play with her instead of against her.”
After four seasons with the Bulldogs, Simpson has grown into a fierce leader. Her teammates praise her for her willingness to hold them accountable in crucial moments. But her presence, according to Berkowitz, can be calm and focused.
Earlier this season, Simpson became the 20th Bulldog to score 1,000 points in her career. Combined with her prolific steal numbers, it is clear that Simpson will have her name etched all over the Yale record books.
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