Since the moment she arrived at the Mary Washington in 2003, Deena Applebury has preached to her teams that defense comes first and the rest will take care of itself.

During her nine years at the helm of the Division III women’s basketball program in Fredericksburg, Va., Applebury’s teams have had years of success adhering to the philosophy, but this year’s squad is taking the coach’s style of play to a whole new level.

The No. 9 Eagles lead the nation in scoring defense and are giving up just 40.6 points per game. Their stifling style has resulted in a 19-0 record following a 53-40 victory against Marymount on Jan. 25 as they seek their third consecutive regular season title in the Capital Athletic Conference.

“Everybody wants to score, but not everybody wants to play defense,” Applebury said. “My teams are very disciplined and understand the importance of defense. Sometimes the offense is going to be there, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes your shooting is off, but if your defense is always there, you’re going to be in the hunt with probably any team you’re facing.”

UMW Scoring Defense in NCAA Rankings during Applebury’s Tenure
YEAR POINTS RANK
2003-04 59.0 108th
2004-05 57.1 99th
2005-06 53.2 26th
2006-07 47.8 3rd
2007-08 49.3 7th
2008-09 50.7 8th
2009-10 48.5 4th
2010-11 46.8 2nd
2011-12 40.6 1st*
*As of Jan. 22, 2012

In the season before Applebury took the helm, the Eagles were 10-17 and gave up 62.9 points per game. When she began her tenure in 2003, Applebury knew those numbers had to change to be successful, but it was not an overnight process.

Applebury’s first season was an improvement as the Eagles posted a 12-13 mark and gave up 59.0 points per game. The next year was a little better as the Eagles won the CAC title and advanced to the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 1997-98 after giving up 57.1 points per game. In Applebury’s third season, the program hit its defensive stride – allowing only 53.2 ppg (26th in the nation) and making a run to the 2006 NCAA tournament semifinals.

“Defense and rebounding are the top two things that we focus on for preparation before games and during the entire season,” Applebury said. “We do focus on team defense and rotations and helping one another. We want to make sure our opponents are shooting the lowest percentage shot we can make them shoot, whether it be keeping them a couple of feet further out or a hand in their face so shots are contested at all times.”

Since the 2006-07 season, the Eagles have been ranked eighth or higher in scoring defense and have given up less than 50 points in five of the last six years, including the current season.

“Defense has definitely been our main focus since day one,” senior guard Katie Wimmer said. “That’s what the majority of our practices consist of. I think this year it has really clicked.”

In eight games this season the Eagles have held opponents to 40 points or less. UMW has allowed more than 48 points just once in a 76-64 victory against Ferrum on Jan. 16. Ferrum is the nation’s seventh-best scoring offense with an average of 76.9 points per game.

“The kids work hard at team defense – they take pride in it and they love being able to shut opponents down,” Applebury said. “They love being able to hold opponents to fewer points than they are used to scoring. They’ve embraced it and it has been working quite well this season.”

“Once we realized how well our defense was doing and that we could really keep teams from scoring, we thought we could do it every single game,” Wimmer said. “This season, we’ve talked about keeping every team under 40. That is the goal, but there will teams that can score more, which challenges us.”

Everybody wants to score, but not everybody wants to play defense. My teams are very disciplined and understand the importance of defense.
-- Mary Washington head coach Deena Applebury

There are no star players or any individual statistics that stand out on the roster. It is a complete team effort – everyone scores and everyone rebounds. The Eagles are ranked 18th in the nation with a +9.3 rebound margin, but there are no individuals in the NCAA rankings for rebounding.

“When we’re at our best, it is when we are in our locations and stay in position,” Wimmer said. “Coach tells us every day, ‘don’t go for steals … stay in position.’ Now, that we are doing that, we know the ball will come to us and we’ll get a stop.” 

The experienced Eagles only lost one senior from last year’s squad, which ended the season with a one-point loss to Wesley in the CAC Tournament semifinals. The loss meant no automatic berth in the NCAA tournament, and UMW was not granted an at-large bid, snapping a streak of six consecutive NCAA postseason appearances.

“It was a big slap in the face … and I think that’s really motivated us this year,” Wimmer said. “We don’t want any regrets this year.”

“Everyone got together and vowed we were not going to let this season start or end like last season did,” Applebury said. “Last year, we got off to a rocky start and then we had a pretty solid run in the middle and then ended on a sour note.”

So far, that motivation has worked for the Eagles, but they are being careful not to be complacent with just six games remaining on the regular season schedule.

“The toughest thing is to maintain focus and not getting too comfortable or content with where we’re at,” Applebury said. “We still have a lot of games left. Our goal is to progress as the season goes on and get as far as we can in the NCAA tournament if we are fortunate enough to get there.”