Sports, Women's Basketball, Column

Defensive Struggles Show Long Road Ahead for Eagles

One month ago, Boston College women’s basketball appeared poised to take the next step in its rebuild. The Eagles had traveled down to Coral Gables to take on Miami, a team that, at the time, was receiving votes in the AP Poll—and has since climbed to No. 14. BC had the lead with under a minute to play, and had multiple opportunities to win the game. Those chances went to waste, though, as Marnelle Garraud missed two 3-pointers with under 30 seconds to play that would have put the Eagles on top, and BC turned the ball over on a five-second violation down 75-73 with 11 seconds to play.

It was a crushing loss, but late-game execution issues aside, the rebuild clearly looked on track for the Eagles. Back then, BC was 13-7 and 2-5 in one of the toughest conferences in college basketball—this was a vast improvement from the 7-23 team of 2017-18, which had an average scoring margin of -10.5, and thus likely wouldn’t have been in the game against the Hurricanes at all.

Flash forward four weeks, however, and the wheels have completely fallen off the bus. Since the Miami defeat, BC has lost seven of its last eight games, and the one win was a double overtime thriller against Duke that required a herculean effort from Makayla Dickens. The Eagles have looked like an entirely different team from the one that BC fans saw at the beginning of the season, and it has become rapidly evident just how much further head coach Joanna Bernabei McNamee’s crew has to go in its rebuild.

Nowhere has this been more evident than on the defensive end of the court. The Eagles have given up 90 points six times over the course of the past seven games after giving up more than 80 points just twice over the first 17 games of the campaign. They’ve registered a defensive rating of under 100 just once in the past 10 contests. Some notable games from that stretch? How about a 91-58 defeat to Clemson—a team that scores just 68.9 points per game, 10th best in the ACC—in which the Tigers shot a whopping 59 percent from the floor and made 9-of-12 shots from behind the arc. Another example is an 11-point loss to Virginia Tech, where BC took a 71-55 lead with 1:38 to play in the third quarter, then absolutely collapsed in the final 11-plus minutes, allowing 40 points to the Hokies.

The recent defensive struggles mean that the Eagles, despite a good start to the season, ranked 313th out of 351 Division I teams in points per game allowed and 260th in points per 100 possessions allowed entering the game against Louisville. Opponents are shooting 44.1 percent against BC, 327th best in the country and 37.1 percent from behind the arc, which means they’re the sixth-worst team in the entire nation at defending the 3-point line. It also doesn’t help that BC isn’t a good defensive rebounding team. The Eagles grab only 66.8 percent of opponents misses, the 123rd worst rate in Division I.

The notable caveat, of course, is the quality of opponent. After all, there’s a big difference between holding Loyola University of Maryland—which currently holds a record of 4-22 and notches just 53.3 points a game—to 47 points and posting an impressive defensive rating of 72.6 and attempting to slow down defending national champion and current AP No. 5 Notre Dame, which scores 87.6 points per contest. It’s to be expected that there’s some form of drop off, but a step back this large raises more concerns.

After all, good defense is notably about effort. You don’t have to be the most athletic player in the country, nor the most skilled to be a great defender, and the same goes for a team’s defense. It is nice to have ridiculous athletes that can jump passing lanes and create deflections with length and speed, but if a team is fundamentally sound with its rotations, and willing to put in the effort to stay in front of players and contest shots, it can certainly be an excellent defensive team.

Right now, as the statistics above show, it doesn’t look like the Eagles are quite there, and that is also illustrated in the fact that BC also fouls way too much. The Eagles average 19.4 fouls per contest—290th best in the country—and also have a foul rate of 25.8 percent, which ranks 239th out of 351 Division I teams. A team that fouls a lot is often undisciplined or tired, failing to rotate quickly or cleanly enough and compensating by reaching too much or fouling on shot attempts after late closeouts. It would be harsh to criticize BC too much for this—after all, this group of players is learning an entirely new defensive system that has also changed throughout the season, and many of the players are in their first season at the ACC level (seven of 12 players on the roster are freshmen)—but it further illustrates how much work the Eagles have to do, both from a fundamentals and conditioning perspective.

It’s also likely that BC’s offense, which, to be fair, has been a bright spot this season, has contributed to the decline in defense. The Eagles average the fifth-most points per game in the conference (75.3) and a respectable effective field goal percentage of 48.7 percent, but they also often play at a breakneck pace. BC’s 1,789 field goals attempted this season is the sixth-most in the entire country. However, that also comes with two issues.

First, it leads to turnovers. The Eagles turn the ball over 17.9 times per game—272nd in the nation—and don’t defend well after those turnovers either. Opponents average 18.9 points per game off of turnovers, and the number of giveaways and the easy baskets that follow certainly exacerbate BC’s defensive issues.

Second, that many shot attempts certainly make for a faster-paced game, which means that a high level of conditioning is required, and as the defensive decline of late has showed, the Eagles simply aren’t at the required physical level to play consistently solid defense with that up-tempo game. This deficiency is offset slightly by BC’s offensive rebounding rate of 39.5 percent (12th best in the country and markedly better than its defensive rebounding rate), but even that advantage on the glass hasn’t been able to compensate over the past eight games.

It’s wonderful that Bernabei-McNamee has been able to institute her offensive scheme so quickly. But the past eight games have rapidly made it abundantly clear that the expectation before the 2018-19 campaign started—that any head coach had a multi-year reconstruction to undertake before the Eagles would be able to become competitive in the ACC again—was accurate.

In this conference, which currently has five teams ranked in the Top 25, it simply isn’t enough to excel on one end of the court and expect to win games. If BC wants to return to relevance once again, and make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005-06, or even make a postseason tournament for the first time since the 2010-11 WNIT, then a defensive rebuild under Bernabei McNamee is also in order. At least the first-year head coach has had a vision for what that rebuild looks like since her introductory press conference in April.

“My ideal brand of basketball is when you’re putting your opponent on their heels, you’re changing up your styles a little bit throughout the game defensively to where you keep them guessing, and you’re a little bit harder team to scout,” she said, per

In order for the Eagles to be more competitive in a conference where eight teams average more than 70 points per game, a defense that can morph to an opponent’s strength is probably not just another wrinkle, but necessary. BC has focused on implementing an up-tempo offense in the first year of a new era, and it’s found results, but for the Eagles to take the next step, the second part of Bernabei McNamee’s vision—that chameleon-like defense—must also come to fruition. If that can develop anywhere near as fast as the offense did, then the future is still bright for BC.

Featured Image by Celine Lim / Heights Editor

February 25, 2019