Westminster College Lady Blue Jays head coach Tracey Braden sensed a bit of hesitance in her players when she asked them to embrace the notion of a press defense.
And Braden wasn't so naive in thinking that it would take the Lady Blue Jays some time to get on board with the frantic, all-or-nothing style of defense.
"We've been telling them for the past four weeks that we believe in them and they have so much potential, and that we are asking them to buy into pressure defense and up-tempo offense," Braden said. "And we kept telling them, "It'll work, it'll work, it's who we are.'"
But host Westminster's 83-73 loss to the No. 16 William Woods University Lady Owls in Tuesday night's season opener could be just the teaching tool Braden needs moving forward this season. The strategy worked more times than not and kept her squad within striking distance to the very end.
It didn't start out that way, though. William Woods (7-0) used its glaringly obvious size advantage to jump out to a quick 7-0 advantage, with junior center Miranda Loesch scoring three points in that stretch. Senior forward Rachel Baker led the Owls with 14 points and Loesch ended up with eight.
But if William Woods' frontcourt is the reason that the Owls eventually prevailed, it was the relentlessness of the Lady Blue Jays in staying with their game plan that kept the contest close for so long.
"Once they got into their press at the five-minute mark (of the first half) and got the game to their tempo, I thought they looked much more comfortable and that caused us some problems, really, where we couldn't get our post involved except in offensive rebounds," William Woods head coach Dan Chapla said. "We got some breaks there, but I felt like the first five minutes they got the momentum to where they wanted it to be and kept it there for most of the game."
The Owls opened up a 19-point lead midway through the second half after freshman guard Katie Scherder went 1-for-2 from the free-throw line to make it 71-52.
But Westminster clogged the passing lanes and was on the ball whenever it was inbounded. A lot of the activity came from the the Lady Blue Jays' backcourt.
Sophomore guard Kenna Cornelson scored a game-high 16 points and came up with seven steals to lead Westminster, while junior point guard Rachel Backes added 14 points.
It was that kind of play that allowed the Lady Blue Jays to pull to as close as four points with about 2 minutes to play.
"I tried to keep their composure," Chapla said. "They hit a couple of shots, but I thought the key was that if we didn't run the ball over, we'd win the game.
"And we did turn the ball over there a couple of times, and in the last five minutes we had that big lead but we became our own worst enemy by recording a total of 27 turnovers)."
But William Woods made the most of its shots, hitting 47 percent (27-of-58) from the field and 81 percent (26-of-32) from the line. For their part, the Lady Blue Jays shot 46 percent (27-of-59) as a team, but could only knock down 13-of-23 free throws (57 percent).
"This is our first trip out of the gate," Braden said. "We haven't played anybody. ... I think they're starting to believe. Do we have work to do? You bet, but I liked what I saw out of our bunch."
Westminster begins play in the Greenville (Ill.) Classic at 1 p.m. Friday against Rhodes. The Lady Blue Jays finish the tournament with a matchup against Hendrix at 11 a.m. Saturday.
William Woods travels to Baker (Kan.) University for a 2 p.m. matchup Saturday.