MARTIN, Tenn. – The season may have begun on Nov. 8 but a change discussed and implemented following a pre-game meal on Dec. 21 has proven to pay dividends to the University of Tennessee at Martin women’s basketball team as the Skyhawks continue their quest towards the program’s fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance and evasive first round victory next week.
During the midst of a season long 10-game road swing, seeing the Skyhawks leave the comforts of the Elam Center following a win over Evansville on Nov. 25 to next return on Jan. 11 against Belmont, consistent effort was still a matter of concern.
That was until a dreary Saturday morning in Champaign, Ill.
With the Skyhawks just mere hours away from taking on their fourth high-major opponent of the season at Illinois, a pre-game meal awaited the team at Perkins adjacent to the team hotel. What happened next is similar to what might occur in the film room or the development of the opponent scout, but without the formality. Over pancakes and toast, the staff saw the athleticism and realized the potential that an active pressure defense could be the missing piece to the puzzle.
When Kevin McMillan was finalizing his staff following his first completed year at UT Martin, he turned to a familiar face to round out his trusted staff. He turned to 2013 TSSAA Hall of Fame inductee David Russell to fill his staff for the 2010-11 season.
Russell, who built his legacy in the prep ranks at Bradford and Gibson County, captured six state championships and won more than 950 games during his illustrious 35 years of service. The master of the full court defense took his teams to the state tournament an astonishing 17 times.
The mixture of McMillan and Russell not only combined an abundance of wins and championship experience, but merged a two-headed monster of offensive efficiency and defensive tenacity.
“In practice we were trying to improve our half court man-to-man defense,” said Skyhawk assistant Russell. “We started switching our defenses and saw that we began to see improved aggression. We had been working on the press to use in spots, and decided to implement our press in the Illinois game, just to see what we had.”
The results did not come to the surface for the average observer against the Illini, only seeing the final result of a 77-62 loss. For the Skyhawks however, the team saw the lead trimmed from 22 to three in the second half, while forcing Illinois to commit 16 turnovers.
“After the Illinois game, we saw something which would help make our team be the best in which they could be,” said McMillan. “It was the press and being able to effectively provide pressure. We struggled early in the season with our effort level. When we enable the press, it does not give you the choice of whether to play hard or not. If you don’t play hard in the press, you are going to be exposed and look foolish, which in turn forces you to play harder.”
Taking away a glimpse of what the pressure defense could cause on opponents, the Skyhawks made the two hour trek down Interstate 57 to Southern Illinois to round out the Illinois road swing.
Two days later on Dec. 23 against Southern Illinois, the Skyhawks remained in their full court pressure defense, forcing a UT Martin record 36 turnovers in the game, including 20 turnovers alone in the first half. Picking up the Saluki offense with pressure saw the Skyhawks tally 16 steals while not allowing SIU to cross half court on five consecutive possessions.
“It’s a combination of coach Russell’s press which is a lot to deal with and the kids buying into being relentless in that press,” said McMillan. “The press is making our effort level go up.”
Known as a defensive mind, Russell points out several characteristics which lead to a recipe of success. “For one thing you have to have that mentality that you are willing to do hard work and embrace the idea that working hard and exuding effort on the press is what you want to be known for,” said Russell. “Athletic ability and quickness always helps. We have the privilege of being pretty quick in four starting positions which allows us to do a lot of things.”
“We have the two best guards in the conference, combined with the best post player in the conference in my opinion. When we flipped the switch to be aggressive on defense, the light came on offensively as well, by increasing the number of possessions.”
The light which Russell referred to certainly clicked as the Skyhawks finished the season as winners of 17 of their last 18 games. During the stretch, the Skyhawks posted a turnover margin of +11.3 over their opponents while outscoring the same foes by an average of 22 points per game. Skyhawk opponents in Ohio Valley Conference play committed 22.8 turnovers per game.
“The aggressiveness that we instilled on the full court defense, leaked into our work in the half court,” said Russell. “With the press, in order for you to be successful, you have to get the second, third and fourth effort on any particular play. A lot of teams are able to get the first effort, but become frustrated as they increase their amount of effort when trying to make good reads as they maneuver the floor.”
As UT Martin prepares for whatever the NCAA selection committee throws its way, the Skyhawks will keep doing what has been successful. Regardless of the opponent’s size, recruitment or ability, the Skyhawks have a recipe for success and are looking to share it with the country.
“It doesn’t matter if you are a good athlete or not, if you aren’t in shape, you will get tired,” said Russell. “If you want to be heavyweight champion of the world, you have to be in shape to go all 12 rounds. In a heavyweight fight, you stick with your strengths and try to knock the opponent out. After 12 rounds, will you still be standing? Your answer has to be ‘yeah I’m still going to be standing no matter what you hit me with.’”
With UT Martin making their fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, don’t expect the Skyhawks to go down without a fight.