by Lee Noles
INDIAN TRAIL – One would think being in the middle of a 10-game winning streak, sitting atop the Southern Carolina Conference, and coming off a double-digit victory against a big rival would have the Cuthbertson High girls’ basketball team ecstatic.
But the Cavaliers had a hard time feeling that way Jan. 5, following the program’s 65-53 road win over Weddington. In a season where defense has been a premium for Cuthbertson, the Warriors’ 53 points was the most the Cavs had allowed all year.
“They were irritated standing outside the locker room,” said Cuthbertson coach Joel Allen, whose team has allowed just 28 points per game this season. “But I like the fact they take so much pride in their defense. It’s good to have goals, and they want to go out and play great defense every game.”
Defense has been a big reason the Cavs hold a two-game lead in the conference at 5-0 and 12-2 overall. During the winning streak, Cuthbertson’s opponents are averaging just around 24 points per game. The defensive peak came during a four-game stretch in which Cuthbertson allowed a combined 42 points. Each of the teams the Cavaliers faced during those four games didn’t even reach 20 points.
“Defense is really important to me, more important than our offense,” three-year starter Kaylin McKinney said. “… We practice that a lot. And we have that mental mindset of playing tough defense every game.”
The change began nearly eight years ago when Allen took over a program, which was coming off a winless season and had allowed more than 56 points per game. One of Allen’s first moves as the new head coach was to implement a defensive scheme where one player stays at the top of the 3-point line followed by three defenders in the middle, and another under the basket. The formation’s intention is to take away the passing lanes by having taller players near the front of the defense, making it more difficult for opposing guards to pass into the post.
The adaption of a new defense found some success early on, but it wasn’t until 2013 when the Cavs saw positive results. Cuthbertson had its first winning season (18-11) in the program’s history that year, reaching the Rocky River Conference finals and the third round of the Class 2A playoffs. It was during this time when the opponents’ scoring average started to make significant drops from 56 the year before Allen took over to 44 during the state playoff run in 2013.
“I don’t think it is anything special that we have done,” said Allen of the defensive turnaround. “I think it’s just keeping up with the same continuation in terms of playing defense. Nothing has really changed.”
Except for the opponents’ scoring average, which has continued to fall the last several years. Last season, Cuthbertson captured the program’s first conference tournament title and reached the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season behind a defense which allowed only 39 points per game.
“On offense, you can have an off night,” said junior guard Kayla Young, who is a three-year starter. “But you can always rely on your defense because it’s all about effort. So, we have shifted our focus to defense the last couple of years.”
The offense is still formidable with the Cavaliers averaging 53 points per game. Cuthbertson has been paced by sophomore Lillian Anderson and freshman Maddie Dillinger. Anderson leads the Cavs at 13.6 per game, while Dillinger is scoring 12.9 a game. The duo leads Cuthbertson in rebounds with Anderson pulling in a team-high 9.1 boards a game. Dillinger is grabbing 7.1 rebounds a contest.
The scoring punch of Anderson and Dillinger was needed against the Warriors. Dillinger had 20 points by the half, finishing with a game-high 30 points. Anderson added 12 points.
“We stress our defense a lot, but we have been working on our offense a lot, as well,” Anderson said. “Particularly with our rebounding, because that allows us to get out and score some easy baskets, because we are bigger this year.”
Cuthbertson has at least four players who are 5-foot-10 or taller with Dillinger (6-foot-1) and Anderson (5-foot-11) showing the ability to use their height to not only grab rebounds and force turnovers, but also run the floor when the Cavaliers get out on fast breaks. The length has been a tremendous asset on both sides of the floor, according to Allen.
What the Cavaliers need to get used to now is being the frontrunners for the conference regular season title. Cuthbertson finished second several times when they played in the Rocky River 2A Conference, but have never captured a league regular season crown.