By Cheryl Jean-Paul

So with the end of the provincial team season, it’s now our opportunity to sit back and reflect on the journey of the past year. It’s amazing the improvement in our team’s ability to compete at the national level. Yes, we moved up 1 spot to 8th place but let me put it in perspective…the 9th place team, Saskatchewan (who we beat for the first time in many years by the way), only lost to the gold medallist team Alberta by 5 points. The 7th place team, Nova Scotia, beat Quebec (who finished 4th) by 17 points in round robin play; Quebec beat Ontario by 7 and we lost to Nova Scotia by 7. So can you see how finishing eighth and playing well against several of these teams is nothing to be ashamed of?

So in terms of what we need to bring back from this experience, here
are 6 key points that our Manitoba athletes and coaches have to focus
on for us to become more competitive at the national level:

1 – Team defense.
One of our major points of weakness was helpside
defense. The ability for an off-ball defender to read the offensive
look and react early enough to stop the drive but then fast enough to
recover back to their check. “Help the helper” is something that we
struggled with – once we did get helpside it was often an easy pass to
the offside guard and it is demoralizing when breakdowns in defense
result in easy scores for your opponent.

    Athlete fix – make sure your back is to the baseline on helpside D
and drop low enough to the baseline so that you can see the ball and
your check. You don’t want to ever turn your back to the play because
you need to be ready to help on dribble penetration but you also can’t
let your check face cut or hit an open 3 because you became a ball

    Coach fix – don’t just play zone defense! Man to man might be ugly
for awhile, but our athletes have to be able to defend….our footwork
isn’t there so that’s something that every coach should stress! Fast
feet, quick reaction times, getting to the helpside early and keeping
your hands up!!! Often coaches will play zone to “protect” their big
kid from getting into foul trouble. Short term that might be good for
your team, but long term that athlete will have a tough time getting on
the floor against top competition if they are not ready to play match
up D.

2 – Rebounding. We played 6 games in PEI and we lost the rebounding
game in 5 of those 6. I’d like to say it’s because we shot the ball so
well or that our opponents gave us nothing to work with or that they
were so huge that we didn’t stand a chance, but with the majority of
teams shooting 30-35% from the field, there were plenty of boards to be
had. Ball watchers is a term we used a lot…athletes standing and
watching the ball handler make a move or take a shot but not moving to
the basketball or to the play. As a province we have to do a better job
of encouraging all of our players to crash the boards on defense and
strategically go after the boards on offense (ie make sure you have a

    Athlete fix – don’t use your size (or lack thereof) or your speed
(or lack thereof) as an excuse for why you can’t rebound. Some of the
toughest rebounders in the tournament were the point guards because
they read the play well, their checks often stayed back for safety and
because their teammates were doing a great job of boxing out the other
team’s usual rebounders.

    Coach fix – incorporate rebounding into your drills to encourage
athletes to make contact and seal before going after the ball. Good
offense often starts with a great defensive board and quick outlet
pass. Don’t let your guards make a habit of standing at the 3 point
line and watching their posts do all the rebounding. Team play!!

3 – Defending the 3 point shooter & defending the on and off ball
. This really hurt us in close games where a simple down screen
became a highlight reel for the opposition. It’s tough sometimes to
figure out who is a shooter and who is not, but realistically, if an
athlete has taken 2 or 3 3-pters and they’ve been good looks, it’s
probably too late to completely shut them down. As most of the
provincial team athletes have learnt this summer, once a great outside
shooter gets that first feel for her shot, she doesn’t need much time
to set that up again and her team will be looking for her.

    Athlete fix – get all the way out!!! I’m not sure why it’s so tough
to close out past the 3 point line, but we had to stress this summer to
get both feet outside the 3 point line, hand all the way up and ready
for the pass. All the shooter needs is a glimpse at the rim to be able
to take a good shot so you have to be able to take that away. As for
screens, watch basketball at a higher level (varsity, university, NCAA
college ball) and watch how athletes play defense against screens.
Based on what your coach wants to do you might be told to switch
everything or fight through everything but either way you need to know
how to play both.

    Coach fix – if you don’t have a good three point shooter on your
team to help your team learn how to close out, recruit someone to
practice with your team – maybe a former athlete, a member of the
varsity team or from the boys’ team or maybe a university athlete who
would be willing to shoot 100 shots. As for screens, know what you want
to stop. If you’re playing against a great shooter you have to talk
about how you’re going to play defense against screeners for shooters
vs. dribble penetration. If the main threat is the player who set the
screen you have to know how to play that as well. Every player should
know how to switch screens and then deny the pass that the opposition
is looking to make. COMMUNICATION must be stressed in practice to be
able to perform well in competition.

4 – Shot selection and shooting percentage.  It’s a criticism from the
top down. It’s one of the biggest areas we need to focus on as a
nation, according to Mike McKay of Canada Basketball. How many times do
we see 1 pass to a quick shot when moving the ball a few times might
result in a much better option? Or moving the ball well for 20 seconds
only to jack up an off-balanced ill-advised 3? A lot of shots were
taken last week but realistically when an athletes goes 1 for 16 from
the 3 pt line you have to wonder if that’s still a good look (not one
of our athletes by the way).

    Athlete fix – know what are your game shots and make sure you can
hit them more often than not. One of the things that has really changed
is how little athletes work on their own. When I was an athlete at
River East, I had the opportunity to go in the gym in the mornings
before class and shoot around with some of the varsity guys who ended
up winning the provincial championship that year. It wasn’t a fluke
when they hit big shots because they had spent hours taking that same
shot over and over again. Repetition and speed... Don’t just shoot
around in flip flops, hit 5 shots and then walk away thinking you’re
golden. You have to take 100’s of shots at game speed and in game mode.

    Coach fix – have shooting drills that simulate the type of shots
that your athletes will see in a game. If you run a motion type offense
they have to be ready to shoot off the dribble, off screens and in
transition. If you run set offenses, they have to know what looks
they’ll get and take multiple shots simulating that portion of your
offense. Shoot tired – that’s what’s going to happen at the end of the
game and they have to be able to shoot when their legs are tired and
they’re starting to think about their fatigue rather than their
shooting form.

5 – Taking care of the ball. Whether it’s a missed lay-up, travelling,
passing to a player that’s not watching, not looking for the ball in
transition, not reading screen and rolls based on the defense’s
reaction, not being able to ball-handle with both hands equally well
and with your head up…..these are all areas of improvement that we have
to stress at all levels of play. It’s never too early to start these
fundamentals and when they are missed in practice they should not be
ignored. When you’re playing against a team that starts 4 of 5 girls
that are 6’ or taller…missing a lay-up is devastating – you won’t get
many of those easy looks so you have to capitalize on them when they do
happen. Nerves plays a part, but the more often our athletes are in
those situations, the easier they will deal with them when they happen
in a big game.

    Athlete fix – mental toughness is a huge part in doing the little
things well. Never take any turnover lightly. You need to know when you
have tendencies of making mistakes. Is it after you’ve made one
already? Is it when your team has to make the score to win? Is it when
you relax or when the score doesn’t really matter? You have to know
your game well to help you prevent mental mistakes that lead to
unforced turnovers. Don’t try to do too much and don’t try to play
outside of your game. If a behind the back dribble is not something
that you normally use in a game, don’t suddenly bring it out and hope
it works. Use it in practice until you’re comfortable and then bring it
to your game.

    Coach fix – call violations in practice. If you are scrimmaging or
playing 3 on 3 or breaking down parts of the game, don’t be afraid to
whistle the play dead and call the turnovers. Don’t let your athletes
get into bad habits in practice because they will certainly bring them
into games, especially in pressure situations.

6 – Game situations and strategies.
If you’re up by 7 with 2 minutes
left, what is your opposition going to look for? Are they going to look
to foul? Quick steals? Quick scores? Who are their key offensive
players? How can you use substitutions to slow the other team’s
momentum down? Who do you want with the ball in the last seconds of the
game? Do you have a baseline full-court play for a long pass if you
need a 3 pt shot at the end? Is everyone on the floor confident to take
the big shot? These are areas that we all need to get better at….one of
things that I learnt is that you can’t possibly be prepared for
absolutely every scenario – injuries happen, foul trouble happens, the
score board freezing up and delaying the game…all of these things really
challenge us as coaches to help our athletes be prepared. We had some
great finishes, we had some great starts, we had some great middle of
the game moments – but the biggest lesson? It takes 40 minutes of
basketball to win a game.

All in all, it was a great learning experience. The athletes competed
hard, grew a lot from the struggles and triumphs, and as a province we
can be very proud of how they carried themselves and how they promoted
the work that’s going on here. For those that supported us by watching
the MIT tournament, we want to thank you for your support and
encouragement. It was a great view into the future of women’s
basketball in this province and a great display of why we work so hard
and have such high expectations. There are some great coaches in our
high school systems that are really passionate about taking their
programs to the next level. Hopefully some of these points will help
you get there. As for Alex, Britley, Brittany, Carlene, Cassy, Kenesha,
Lauren, Liz, Raven, Siera, Steph, Tia and Yael – good luck in your high
school seasons, in your future basketball plans and way to represent
our province well! We are all proud of you and it was an honour for me
to coach you!

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