LINCOLN — Jordan Hooper has led the Nebraska women's basketball team in scoring for two years on a medley of layups, putbacks and jumpers.
But the junior from Alliance, Neb., has a keen awareness of where she — and the Huskers — first create the success that propelled them last season to a 24-win season and the NCAA tournament. The success that has Hooper getting preseason All-America votes and NU landing inside the top 20 to start this season.
“Defense,” Hooper said. “Our defense is our offense.”
Standing at one end of the Husker women's practice court inside the Hendricks Training Complex, Hooper pointed to a blue strip of tape that runs vertically down the middle of the lane.
“That's pretty much our defensive system right there,” she said.
It's a man-to-man, deny-the-drive defense that coach Connie Yori and associate head coach Sunny Smallwood put into a small packet to start each camp. That takes a week to install but four years to perfect, Hooper said. It requires conditioning, depth, a lot of chatter and a bunch of willing, tough souls to hound opposing guards all over the court.
It doesn't necessarily produce flashy steal numbers; NU ranked 160th nationally in that category last season. But the cumulative effect of Nebraska's defense creates fatigue in opponents. It prompts unforced errors. It often helps start the Huskers' effective fast break after a lazy pass or a bad shot. And at the end of it all, the opponent can be so tired of playing offense that it slacks off on defense.
Whenever the Huskers had a comeback last season — in two wins over Wisconsin, or the win over Iowa at the Big Ten tournament — defense was the reason, senior guard Lindsey Moore said. And as NU looks at an even bigger season this year, defense will be the key.
“You can tell people get frustrated,” said Moore, whom Yori calls Nebraska's best defender. “And you can tell we're taking away something they want. Teams want to play in the middle of the floor, and we keep them out of the middle. And they have to figure out a way to do something else.”
There's no catchy name for it. Freshman Sadie Murren called it “box pressure” — a box of defenders who move according to where the offense swings the ball.
Hooper knows it's governed by the line of blue tape, a kind of home base from which the Huskers should never stray too far. Hooper calls that line the “eye,” as in the eye of a storm, and says knowing “how to move in and out of it” is important to making Yori's defense work.
How important? Hooper said it's common for Yori to interrupt “at least once a drill” to correct some element of Nebraska's defensive execution. Moore said Yori or Smallwood will stop practice simply to point out that a Husker wasn't the appropriate number of feet between the line and the ball.
“They harp in drills to be perfect, because in games there will be slippage,” Moore said. “Because it happens so much faster in a game. When a game comes and it does happen fast, you're able to get to the area where they want. You might not be able to get two feet ball side, but you're able to get close.”
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The more effectively players can smother the opponent on defense, the more likely they are to play. As a freshman last year, Hailie Sample put up modest scoring numbers. As a senior, Kaitlyn Burke did the same. Together, they averaged 10 points and made just 25 percent of their 3-pointers.
But they both started all 33 games because of how they guarded the perimeter and instinctively cut off passing lanes. When a team can't move the ball around the arc and create new attack angles, it stagnates. Moore said the Huskers do change-of-direction drills that make them quicker to “jump to the ball.”
The system takes considerable depth. In addition to Moore, Sample and Burke, Nebraska frequently played three more guards who averaged between 13 and 15 minutes per game.
Two of them — Tear'a Laudermill and Brandi Jeffery — return for their sophomore seasons. Three freshmen — Rachel Theriot, Murren and Courtney Aitken — will vie for playing time. With Theriot out right now with a foot injury, Murren and Aitken will get more of a chance in Yori's system.
“Coming in, I thought there was a hedge and a switch screen,” said Murren, who starred for Wahoo High School. “But we have eight different ball screen defenses. That's the hardest thing to adjust to in college — the defensive part. I'm getting there.”
Hooper can relate. She admits that, in high school, she followed the ball on defense, using her athleticism to recover if her player got open for a shot. That doesn't fly in college, and one of the best ways to create defensive chemistry is communication. Loud, constant chatter. Hooper's more likely to shrug than shout.
“I'm still working on that,” Hooper said. “I need to improve. You say what you want to say — even if it's the wrong thing. At least say something.”
The defense could use a name catchier than “box pressure” or “man-to-man” or “blue line.”
Does Hooper have any ideas? She shrugged.
“That'd be pretty cool,” she said. “But I just don't know what it would be.”
At least 24 wins this season — and perhaps more — would be a decent start to coining it.
Ľ NOTES: Nebraska plays its second exhibition game at 2:05 p.m. Sunday. The opponent: The University of Nebraska at Kearney, which finished 8-19 in Division II last year.
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