One Team All Green

Buying Into a Culture Change Leading to Success for Women’s Basketball

Change is never an easy thing to adjust to. Especially when it is a coaching change. Different philosophies, different perspectives and perhaps different expectations are all part of the change. Some teams adjust rather easily. Others go through a great deal of growing pains. Some players even tend to transfer when there is a coaching change. But, once the players start buying in to what the new coach is preaching, things get better.

Just ask the UVU women’s basketball team.

After stumbling through a 1-9 start to the season, the Wolverines have reeled off four straight wins, two of which have come in WAC play. And, according to first-year head coach Dan Nielson, something clicked after a 26-point home loss to Weber State.

“It kind of opened their eyes to the reality that they had to buy into what we were doing defensively,” Nielson said. “They had to be willing to be held accountable by us, by their teammates, and not take it personal. We’re just trying to get better. I think in the last four games … that the defensive end has been the key.”

And Nielson is absolutely right. During the four-game win streak, UVU hasn’t allowed an opponent to shoot better than 32 percent from the field. In fact, in its most recent win on Saturday against Kansas City, the Wolverines held the Roos to just 25 percent shooting. That is nearly 15 points below what Kansas City averages on the season. Kansas City came into Saturday averaging 65 points per game. And, with a stellar defensive effort, UVU held the Roos to just 41 points in the blowout win.

UVU PG Maria Carvalho scored a career-high 19 points to help UVU beat Kansas City on Saturday. But, it was her defense her new head coach was most pleased with. (Erik Flores, UVU Marketing)

The defensive philosophy has been the most significant change under Nielson in his first year at UVU. For many years under former head coach Cathy Nixon, UVU played primarily zone defense. At times it worked. However, when teams had shooters, the zone defense struggled. 

When Nielson took over in May from BYU, the change to man-to-man defense was a primary focus. And while it took nearly two months for the Wolverines to buy in, the wait has paid off.

“We understand that it’s going to take time to learn,” Nielson said. “You go almost two and a half, three season of just playing zone, getting through a down screen is a new concept for them. I think you’re starting to see a level of familiarity with it and level of comfort with it … 100 percent of the credit goes to the girls because they stayed positive and they stayed on board.”

Perhaps the most important aspect of the zone defense is the accountability players have. According to Nielson, in a zone defense, every little thing matters. If you take a possession off, it could lead to a layup. You could play great defense for 25 seconds but taking that last five seconds of the shot clock off could lead to an open shot. 

“It’s that level of accountability for the whole possession that has been hard for them,” Nielson said. “We do defensive breakdowns for two-thirds of practice … I’m sure they get tired of it. But our goal is to replicate the game so many times that by the time we hit it Saturday, it’s really no different than what we have done all week.”

It’s not the first year that the UVU women have begun WAC play undefeated. In 2018-19, the Wolverines began WAC play with four straight wins. But, back to earth the Wolverines came, losing three of their next four games. UVU finished with an 8-8 conference record. And Neilson knows his team can’t look ahead as anyone can win or lose a game on any given day.

“As much as you hate to lose, I think there are a lot of lessons that come from a loss,” Nielson said. “It wasn’t that long ago we lost a game on the road that we don’t think we should have lost. That’s still in us, unfortunately.

First-year head coach Dan Nielson brought a new culture and defensive mindset to UVU and his players are finally buying in. (Erik Flores, UVU Marketing)

“I think you see it in the four-game win streak. Every game there’s been different people step up. I think that’s the beauty of our team. They are all capable and that makes us hard to guard. Just like I feel like we can beat anybody in the league, I feel like we could lose to anybody. We haven’t earned that right to expect that level of consistency yet. So, we have to continually be harping on those small things until that culture is ingrained of this is how we do it and we do it that way all the time.”

Four straight wins, back-to-back Player of the Week honors and sitting atop the WAC standings after the first weekend. Not a bad place to be for a the Wolverines, considering preseason polls. There is still a lot of basketball to play. And Nielson understands staying on task is essential to the continuing success.

“It’s a credit to them that we’ve gotten to this point,” Nielson said. “We’re headed in the right direction. But the message is that we haven’t done anything yet. We have to keep building and progressing.”

UVU hosts Seattle on Saturday afternoon in the UCCU Center. Tip-off is at 2 p.m. MT and can be seen on the WAC Digital Network

Here is a story to read about the Top Ten Moments of the Decade for UVU Athletics, as well. 

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