Macaulay Mikes of the Upper Arlington High School girls basketball team recalls needing only a few hours of practice at the middle-school level to realize how much man-to-man defense is stressed throughout the Golden Bears' program.
"They had us do a lot of defensive drills that basically consisted of us getting low and making sure we shuffled our feet," said Mikes, now a 5-foot-8 senior guard. "That's how we've always done it around here. Our strength is our defense, and this year we have an athletic team, which helps."
Much of the reason the Bears entered this week 7-7 overall and 5-4 in the OCC-Central Division is the stingy man-to-man defense that coach Chris Savage and his players consider the backbone of the team's identity. Even during a recent slump in which UA lost five of eight games, the Bears allowed an average of 44.3 points.
UA has limited five opponents to 40 points or fewer and three others to 52 or fewer.
"We're relatively athletic, and the girls have been learning the same principles for the three or four years they've been in the program," Savage said. "That's something we try to get through to them as early as seventh and eighth grade, even our travel teams in fourth and sixth grade. It's buying into the concept of team defense. It's not just 'my girl,' it's 'our girls.' As soon as we buy into that 'our girl' concept and not just 'my girl,' it's easier to teach rotations, helping, that kind of thing."
UA's best defensive effort may have come in a 74-28 win over Marion Harding on Jan. 5, a day after defeating Marysville 53-29.
The Bears occasionally have deviated from man-to-man defense this season. When that happens, it's usually in favor of a 1-3-1 look, depending on the opponent.
"It's quite a change when we do that, especially for me since I'm in the post," said senior forward Allee Overmyer, who lauded the effort and endurance of two multi-sport athletes, Mikes (lacrosse) and junior guard Chiara Paradiso (soccer), in leading the defense. "In man, I'm usually behind or three-quarters behind the post player. But in a 1-3-1, I tend to front players. I don't do that much, so it's a change for me. Anytime we don't do man, especially when it's a zone, that feels foreign."
Savage is proud that his team hasn't let its offensive woes carry over to defense. UA was held below 40 points three times -- a 60-23 loss to Dublin Coffman on Jan. 11, a 36-28 loss to Hilliard Davidson on Dec. 21 and a 39-36 loss to Westland on Jan. 8 -- through 14 games.
In their first matchup with the Shamrocks on Nov. 30, the Bears lost 52-51.
"I am accentuating any positive I can right now when we are struggling," Savage said. "I certainly have to correct them as a coach and criticize them occasionally, but at the same time we have great girls here who do whatever I ask and are happy about it. They can do a lot of good things. I know how hard they are working and they know I appreciate that."
UA still has time before the start of the postseason to become more consistent offensively. The Bears began a stretch of four games in eight days on Jan. 22 at New Albany. They have league games Friday, Jan. 25, at Olentangy Liberty and Tuesday, Jan. 29, at Central Crossing and play host to Newark on Saturday, Jan. 26.
UA defeated Liberty 47-32 on Dec. 14 and beat Central Crossing 47-46 on Dec. 11.
"A lot of times we've passed up shots in the post, passed the ball to the outside and are settling for outside shots," Overmyer said. "Maybe we've been passing the ball too much when we should be driving. We'll keep trying and see what works."