WHITWELL, Tenn. -- Whitwell's Lady Tigers aren't so welcoming when hosting high school basketball games this season, even though they're waiting to greet their opponents as they exit the bus.
Word has it, that's when they apparently starting guarding them.
Coach Eric Zensen has sold his team on an in-your-face approach to defense that extends at least endline to endline, game after game, and as a result Whitwell has compiled an 18-4 record heading into tonight's home game against District 6-A opponent Richard Hardy at 7 EST. The Lady Tigers sit atop the district standings at 8-0.
Among the keys to success has been their willingness to put unrelenting pressure on each opponent, for 32 minutes if needed. It also doesn't hurt that no one graduated off last year's squad.
"We're not a big team," Zensen said. "We don't have a lot of size down low. The makeup of my team is a lot of very athletic girls who are extremely quick, so defensively it's to our advantage to play up-tempo and pressure to the best of our abilities."
Whitwell's opponents are turning the ball over at a clip of a little more than 33 times per game.
"I like it because it's just fun to shut teams down," said senior point guard Halle Ware, who is tied with junior Paige Carter for the team lead in steals at 2.9 per game with senior Braylie Condra at 2.6. "They all get worked up and start arguing with each other."
Conversely, things have been harmonious with the Lady Tigers, who divide playing time well into their bench.
"It's difficult to sustain pressure from start to finish," Zensen said. "Yeah, we are in shape, but I also play 10 girls. Go through our stat book and you can see 10 girls play quality minutes for us."
Zensen said his players know the inner workings to four different full-court presses, but the Lady Tigers favor a man-to-man press with calculated double-teaming. Senior post player Sarah Green might be one who would retreat in a zone press, but not necessarily in this defense.
"I play back sometimes, but it just depends on who I guard," Green said. "If my player is throwing the ball in or up in the frontcourt, I guard her there."
Whitwell has proven to be difficult to top the 50-point mark against this season, but by Zensen's admission his team's offense has been spotty at best. Ware, at 14.5 points per game, has been a scoring threat throughout her prep career and is the only double-figure scorer for the season.
"Halle is on her way," Zensen said. "She's about to reach the 1,800-point mark for her career in the next few games. Defensively she's a great on-the-ball defender. She's lightning quick. Offensively as a point guard, she's got to be a leader and direct our offense. She's also had some huge games in her career, and hit some big shots as well."
With no player taller than 5-foot-9, the Lady Tigers try to avoid getting into shoot-a-lot rebounding contests. But they're often efficient crashing on the offensive end, which explains why they're within one (34.8-33.8) of their opponents in average rebounding margin per game.
Carter, a 5-8 junior, leads the team at a little more than 8.5 rebounds per game. She's even had a few games in the mid-to-high teens.
But what the team does in those other phases of the game serve only as a complement to its ability to defend.
"My goal is just to work hard every game," Green said. "That's why our defense is so good, because we all work hard."
Whitwell faces a pivotal game Tuesday when it hosts Sale Creek. The Lady Panthers' only district loss was Dec. 1 in the first meeting between the teams.
The Lady Tigers will soon turn their focus to the postseason, where last March their run ended in a state sectional. The way they're forcing turnovers, they believe this year they can force their way to Murfreesboro.
"I think we've got a chance to go to the state tournament this year," Ware said. "If we play like we can and show up and play every game, I don't see anybody around here beating us."
Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or firstname.lastname@example.org.