Alle-Kiski Valley basketball teams take defense-first mentality
Its winning streak on the line and its big man held in check, the Plum boys basketball team had to reach for something extra Tuesday night at Franklin Regional.
Patience had to subdue panic, and each possession had to carry substantially more value than the last.
Like a hungry family waiting for their meals at a busy restaurant, the Mustangs went to their bread and butter.
Defense rescued Plum (12-1) in a tight game, with its chest-bumping guards hounding the other team's top scorer and creating opportunities on the other end of the court. A seventh straight win — 53-51 the final — wasn't perfect, but it had a sort of Plum flavor to it, like grape in purple Gatorade.
“The big thing, always, is that you can't be an easy team to play against,” Plum coach Ron Richards said. “If you think you're just going to go out and think you're going to outscore people, that's not a recipe for success.”
Plum could be on its way to defending its title as the WPIAL's top statistical defensive team. Last season, the Mustangs allowed a WPIAL-low 43.1 points per game. That title is practically expected by a team coached by Richards.
“Our philosophy is to guard first,” Richards said. “There will be nights when you're offense isn't at its best, and you need to lean on your defensive play.”
Several other Alle-Kiski teams share similar defensive mentalities.
Knoch (11-2) is aiming to take Plum's title. It has fought through hard screens to post the top statistical average in the WPIAL among boys teams (39.1 ppg). Ron McNabb was an assistant at Plum for two years before becoming the head coach at Knoch, which has held eight teams to 40 or fewer points.
“When I coached with (Richards) we talked about (defense),” McNabb said. “A lot of teams think we slowed it down at Plum. But we didn't. We worked for good shots. The teams that want to get up into the 70s and 80s, that's not my style. I have never been comfortable with that. We hunker down and play good D.
“I mean, it's fun to get up into the 70s or 80s, but winning is fun, too.”
Three girls teams, all from the same section (1-AA), are allowing less than 35 points a game: Apollo-Ridge (31.8), Burrell (32.4) and Ford City (33.3).
The Apollo-Ridge girls' average is somewhat skewed because the Vikings own lop-sided wins over struggling teams Leechburg (52-4) and Wilkinsburg (69-5), but they do create transition points like the other two.
Few would dispute that Burrell (14-0) is one of the top defensive girls teams in the WPIAL. With a 29.3-point average, the Bucs last season finished second only to Our Lady of the Sacred Heart (29.1) in defensive average. Their agonizing pressure can create a cluster of turnovers.
“Their defense is on another planet,” West Shamokin coach Judd McCullough said of Burrell.
Burrell held Class AAAA Fox Chapel to 30 points, and Class AAA Indiana and Keystone Oaks to 32 and 26, respectively. It also beat State College, a good Class AAAA team from outside the WPIAL, 48-45.
Burrell and Ford City also have decisive wins over Leechburg.
Ford City always has had a reputation for dictating tempo in games under coach Al Davis, who emphasizes defense daily.
“We do our practices in fourths, and defense gets a fourth of practice every time,” Davis said.
It's rare to see the Sabers deviate from man-to-man pressure.
“I've been like that for 30 years; I'm not much for playing zone,” Davis said. “I like putting pressure on the ball and trying to extend the defense when we can. I think playing man puts more responsibility on the girls. They know who they've got, and they know who to box out.”
Knoch this week lost to Butler County nemesis Mars, 40-38, but McNabb took solace in the fact his team stuck to its defensive game plan, forcing Mars to play its pace. Mars was averaging better than 65 points.
Defensive philosophies can't last unless they're practically fossilized into the program.
“I went to a (coaching) clinic years ago, and Dean Smith said, ‘It's not what you teach, it's what you emphasize,' ” McNabb said. “That's the way you have to be. You have to work on it and stay with it.”
Personnel plays a part in style of play, although coaches like McNabb argue that good defensive players are chiseled and don't always have offensive prowess.
Richards said Plum is a different type of defensive team with 6-foot-6 senior forward Austin Dedert clogging the lane. Dedert has been one of the area's top all-around players this season.
“Things change when you have a shot blocker,” the coach said. “And we have one in Dedert. You force people to drive the ball right at him.”
Bill Beckner Jr. is the local sports editor of the Valley News Dispatch. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.