The DeLaSalle girls' basketball team sets up defensively with a simple yet ambitious goal in mind: to not let the other team run its offense.
Islanders coach Tanysha Scott, a 2001 DeLaSalle graduate, is responsible for establishing that lofty objective. She preaches a full-court, man-to-man defense that forces opponents into uncomfortable situations, creates turnovers and leads to easy baskets for her team.
"You've got to be able to guard somebody. From the tip, if they're taking the ball out or getting a rebound, we're up," Scott said. "Even when you're facing good teams with good ballhandlers, you want to try to get the ball out of their hands and cause confusion about what to do. We want to keep them from getting set and running plays. We want to keep them moving."
In Scott's third year as coach, the Islanders have firmly established their defensive identity. They've allowed more than 54 points only three times and held opponents under 30 points five times in 14 games (excluding two forfeits) this season. Last year's team, which went 20-11 and won the consolation championship in the Class 3A tournament, never held a team under 30 points.
The fourth-ranked Islanders (12-4) were at their best Jan. 27, when they thumped Eau Claire Memorial 58-18, holding it to three second-half points en route to their 11th consecutive victory. They picked up No. 12 last Tuesday with a 67-61 defeat of Hopkins, the third-ranked team in Class 4A but playing without star sophomore guard Paige Bueckers.
The winning streak helped the Islanders move on after some early-season adversity. They initially won their first two contests at the Thanksgiving Tip-Off Tournament at the University of St. Thomas but ended up forfeiting those games because they played an ineligible player. That player had to leave the team, and the Islanders were still coming to terms with it in early December when they lost back-to-back games to two of the top teams in Class 3A — No. 1 Cooper and No. 3 Mahtomedi.
"For us, it's all about the whole team," Scott said. "We want everybody to be there and be involved, so losing a player really had an impact on them. It affects the kids to lose a player they care about and wanted to be a part of something. It took them a while to get programmed back in and say, 'We're OK, we'll deal with it and control what we can control.' "
The team's experienced core of players has helped it weather the 0-4 start. The Islanders didn't lose any seniors from last year's team and return four all-conference selections, including Tri-Metro Conference first-teamers and senior captains Ayanna Gardner and Olivia Travis. Gardner averages 8.4 points per game at point guard. Travis, the 6-2 "little" sister of former Islander and current Stanford standout Reid Travis, averages eight points. They lead a balanced offense featuring eight players averaging between five and 11 points.
"We all just try to help each other score," Travis said. "We understand that we don't have any Olympians on our team or anything like that, but we can all put the ball in the basket. Our best games come when everybody scores."
Travis is joined in the post by junior Mary Claire Francois, who made honorable mention all-conference last season. The Islanders have two other 6-footers in sophomore Nurjei Weems (8.4 points per game) and versatile freshman Nora Francois (11 ppg). Newcomer Elaina Jones is averaging 8.7 points.
Gardner is joined in the backcourt by fellow senior captain Dacoda Speidel, who is averaging nearly 10 points since returning from an early-season knee injury, and honorable mention all-conference pick Alexis Cochran-Starr.
"We are a pretty aggressive team on offense and defense," Speidel said. "We like to press a lot, we have size, and we have a good bench. We can put anybody in and they can get the job done."
Speidel said the team is also more determined than ever to get back to state after its disappointing quarterfinals loss to Winona last season.
"We're using that game as motivation," she said. "It was a hard loss, but we learned so much from that. We've been able to come closer as a team because of it. We feel pretty confident in our team that we can achieve what we want to this year."
Scott has seen that motivation fuel the Islanders' work ethic as they work toward a return trip to state.
"It's all the same girls, they've been there, and they know where they want to go and what they have to do to get there," Scott said. "They've shown from the start that they're willing to work hard in practice. That first time you're in that moment [at state], you never know how it's going to be. Now they know the moment and what they need to do in those moments."