As a player at Winfield-Mount Union High School, Linda Lappe developed a defense-first mentality that has never left her.
"Our first high school practices, all we did was defense," Lappe said. "It was kind of ingrained into me at a pretty young age."
What she learned from coach Mitch Wachs at Winfield-Mount Union, and then as a player under Ceal Barry at Colorado, has become the staple of this year's CU women's basketball team.
"(Defense) really is what our team has become known for and everybody on our team, that's probably our most confident characteristic about ourselves," sophomore Lexy Kresl said.
Ranked No. 19 in the country, Colorado (25-6) opens the NCAA Tournament on Saturday at 4:40 p.m. against Kansas (18-13) in Boulder. It'll be the Buffs' first NCAA appearance in nine years, and they got here in large part because of the defensive philosophy Lappe and her staff established when she took over the program before the 2010-11 season.
"Getting our players to buy into that and getting our players to understand that we can be in a lot of games if we will play defense and we will rebound, because a lot of teams won't do that," Lappe said of her philosophy. "They won't work hard enough to do that. So, our philosophy is that you've got to be mentally tough to play defense for 40 minutes."
Center Rachel Hargis, who received Pac-12 All-Defense honorable mention this season, came to CU with that mentality. Like Lappe, she played her high school ball under a defense-first coach.
"She didn't care if we scored 10 points, the other team was going to score five," Hargis said. "She never let anybody get away with anything cheap on defense. She constantly held us accountable and drilled that into us and that's why we had such success as a high school team."
Several Buffs, however, have had to change their thinking from their high school days.
Two years ago, junior Brittany Wilson was nowhere near the defender she is now. She was named to the Pac-12's All-Defense team this year.
Kresl was a star on offense and rarely thought about her defense, Lappe said.
"I remember telling her she was going to be a defensive stopper ... and she looked at me like I was crazy," Lappe said. "Something tells me by the time she's done here, she's going to be a pretty good defensive stopper."
A defensive liability early in her freshman year last season, Kresl made a stellar play on defense during the third round of the Women's NIT. In the closing seconds, Kresl was isolated by Villanova's Devon Kane, who drove to the hoop. Kresl played tough defense and Kane missed the shot. CU won, 48-47.
"I really think that one play kind of catapulted her into her defensive ability this year," said Lappe, who has used Kresl as a starter for much of the year because of Kresl's ability to succeed on both ends of the floor. "You also have to have some confidence. She was able to gain some confidence from it."
The whole team has gained confidence from its success on defense. Colorado has allowed just 54.1 points per game, which is on pace to break the school record for fewest points allowed per game. The Buffs rank 32nd in the country; they were second in the Pac-12; and, among the 64 teams in the NCAA Tournament, just 15 have allowed fewer points.
"We talk a lot about Colorado pride," Kresl said. "What that encompasses in defense is pressure and not giving up and going after lose balls and boxing out. It's a lot of the little things that most teams don't really think about, but we focus on them and we make them our main goals."
There are a lot of different defensive schemes, but for Lappe's squad, defense is about great technique, toughness and, frankly, being a bit of a bully to the opposition.
"The biggest thing is making it tough for the offense to get a good shot and making them hurried in everything that they do," Lappe said. "We never want the offense to be comfortable. We always want them to think that we're coming.
"We have that toughness mentality that we're going to lock you up and we're going to get in a stance and we're going to be in great position, we're going to help each other out."
Lappe speaks with great passion when talking about defense, because defense is what made her the player she became in high school and college.
"I love defense," she said. "I love coaching it. I loved playing it. It's so intense."
Her players love it, too, and they love that they are getting reputation for it.
"Being a Buff means being a good defensive team and player," Hargis said.
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