Felisha Legette-Jack left no doubt about her core basketball philosophy the day she was hired at the University of Buffalo.
“We are going to be about defense,” Legette-Jack said in June 2012. “We are going to defend what’s rightfully ours. We are going to make it our mantra, something that we can hold on to. We can’t always score that bucket, but we can always play defense.”
Jack’s proclamation became a reality last season, as UB led the Mid-American conference in field-goal percentage defense en route to its best season in 11 years.
The Bulls held foes to 37.1 percent shooting. They led the MAC in blocks, averaging 4.5 a game. They were second in steals with 10.2 a game. They held teams to 67.2 points a game, fourth best in the MAC.
The good defense helped the Bulls to a 17-13 record and a 10-8 record in conference, UB’s most MAC wins since 2003.
The UB and St. Bonaventure women look like the top candidates among Western New York’s men’s and women’s Division I basketball teams to contend for a postseason berth. With almost everyone back this season, the Bulls are planning on defense being the key to another successful season.
“Coach Jack is such a high-energy coach that when she’s yelling, getting after us on defense, it makes it more fun,” said Kristen Sharkey, a 6-foot-1 senior from New Jersey. “We all compete in practice, and it translates into the games.”
Get Legette-Jack talking about defense, and it’s apparent her pulse quickens.
“Usually when we talk about defense, I’m sweating,” she said. “I’m all into it. So they can know this is where they put their money. This is where our hat is hung – on defense. Players will buy into what the coach buys into.”
Legette-Jack is a Syracuse native who still ranks second on Syracuse University’s all-time scoring list and first on its career rebounding list. Growing up, she says she and her two basketball-playing brothers embraced the defensive game.
“We just decided as a family growing up that in order to play this game you can’t let people take what you think belongs to you,” Jack said. “That came through defense. I had two brothers, one played overseas in England for six years, one was drafted by the Golden State Warriors. We played not just to win, we played to punish. In order to punish, you’ve got to stop somebody. You’ve got to take their heart out. How do you take their heart out? You don’t let them score.”
That kind of talk helps motivate players to do the kind of dirty work in practice that carries over into games. Whether it’s working on taking charges or doing perimeter-defense drills that require nonstop hustling, defensive practice is generally not as much fun as offensive practice.
“It’s not really about fun or not fun, it’s about doing what it takes to win,” Sharkey said. “If you get tired in these drills, you’re going to get tired in the game. So you have to keep pushing through.”
UB’s defense is solid in the front court.
Sharkey and 6-2 senior Christa Baccas ranked fourth and sixth, respectively, in rebounding in the MAC. Baccas tied for first in MAC games in blocks, and 6-0 sophomore Alexus Malone was seventh.
Mackenzie Loesing, Malone and Sharkey all ranked among the top 15 in the MAC in steals.
UB’s best on-ball defenders this season figure to include sophomore guard Joanna Smith, junior guard Karin Moss, sophomore wing Rachel Gregory and freshman guard Katherine Ups.
Baccas said an early-season win last season over Pittsburgh, in which the Bulls held the Panthers to 36 percent shooting and 62 points, helped show the team it could win with defense.
“Last year when we played Pitt our defense was on point,” Baccas said. “They had some really good guards and post players. The system Coach Jack put in for that game really helped us. We switched up a lot on the post players. That was a game that helped us.”
“That’s one thing I can be confident about, come hell or high water, we’re going to defend,” Legette-Jack said.