Life after Makenzie Miller was going to be different — much different — for the UW-La Crosse women’s basketball team.
When a player accounts for as much offense and as much rebounding as Miller did for the Eagles, losing that person to graduation creates a void the next team must fill. UW-L has eight new players this season between transfers and freshmen, so there was even more adjusting needed to acclimate to the fresh faces in the lineup.
However, the Eagles — whose 5-2 mark at this point in the season matches last year’s and has a chance to become 6-2 when they play Dubuque at 3 p.m. Saturday at Mitchell Hall — are getting it done defensively, which allows them to be in games even though their offense hasn’t always found its flow.
UW-L has allowed 53.4 points per game this season, down from 59.1 a year ago. Defensive stops are what coach Karen Middleton says must be her team’s staple.
“We know we’re going to have to defend, we know we’ve got to be really good on the boards in conference play, and that’s been a huge, huge focus for us,” said Middleton, who’s in her second year with the Eagles.
Without much in the way of size — UW-L’s tallest player is 6-foot-1 freshman Caitlin O’Brien — the team has focused on its on-ball defense to create turnovers and force difficult shots. UW-L averages seven steals per game, and opponents are turning it over about 16 times a game against the Eagles.
UW-L’s defense particularly ratchets up when sophomore Delaney Schoenenberger and freshman Ava Kramer hit the floor. The pair comes off the bench and are among the team’s leaders in minutes per game. Against Bethany Lutheran last week at Mitchell Hall, the Eagles held the Vikings to 30 points after they came in averaging more than 80 per game, and the duo of Schoenenberger and Kramer was a big reason why.
“We played really well on-ball and we did well talking out everything on defense, and we really boxed out well,” Schoenenberger said. “We work a lot on denying the ball when it’s a pass away, and Ava’s really great at that. I think overall our defense plays really well together and we know how each other plays.”
Schoenenberger’s consistency is key to her success — “I know what she’s going to bring us every night,” Middleton said — and her defense has improved so much that Middleton’s comfortable putting her on opponents’ best player.
Schoenenberger also had her best game offensively this year against Bethany Lutheran, scoring 22 points on 8 of 13 shooting. Kramer had 22 points against Macalester Nov. 30 on the road as well.
Against Bethany Lutheran, Kramer initiated the fast-break often, something that Middleton appreciates in her game.
“Her speed creates a lot of opportunities for her and us,” Middleton said. “Defensively, she’s a little gnat out there. She’s feisty, she’s super competitive, she brings a totally different dimension for us.”
Maintaining this level of defense and finding balance on offense behind senior forward Elise DeNoyer will make the Eagles truly dangerous when conference play begins.
A versatile 5-foot-10 player from Waukesha, Wis., DeNoyer has stepped into the leading scorer’s role with solid results. She’s averaging 15.9 points per game on 49.5 percent shooting and is the team’s leading rebounder (8.7 per game).
But that prowess around the rim comes with a cost — teams have been double- and triple-teaming DeNoyer when she gets the ball in the post or when she starts to drive from the wing. Having the rest of the lineup continue to find ways to score will force defenses to play DeNoyer without double-teams, which will be crucial, Middleton said.
“What we saw (Saturday) with Elise is what’s going to happen, double- and triple-teaming,” Middleton said. “Delaney stepped up really big for us, hit some nice shots for us. With that, that makes it tough to focus on one person, so we need that and a couple others getting into the rhythm and getting into their comfort zone.
“We’re still a major work in progress.”