Heading into the season, one of the discussions VCU’s women’s basketball team had was, “What’s our team identity?”
Coach Beth O’Boyle knew her team was long and athletic but, entering November, the Rams were still in the process of figuring out exactly what that identity was.
The team was coming off a challenging 2017-18 season, finishing 7-22 overall while fielding a roster that included seven true freshmen and a redshirt freshman, with no seniors, two juniors and four sophomores.
This year, that roster makeup has shifted into a group that features, in part, six sophomores and five juniors (with still no seniors).
As those young players have matured, a leap has come swiftly. The Rams matched last year’s win total on Dec. 21 and surpassed it 10 days later.
They began Atlantic 10 play 5-0 — their best start in conference competition since 2009-10. They are now 15-6 overall and 7-1 in A-10 play.
When it comes to that identity, the Rams have made defense their calling card. O’Boyle said that they’ve bought into wanting to create chaos on the floor, and disrupting opponents’ offensive rhythm.
VCU is ranked second nationally in three defensive categories: scoring defense (49.5), field goal percentage defense (31.9) and 3-point field goal percentage defense (22.7).
“I think a part of it is, when you look at our players, we have a great combination of length, athleticism and buy-in,” O’Boyle said of the defensive improvement. “They’ve really bought into, ‘OK, we can hold teams, we can disrupt them, we can turn them over.’ And then we have a variety of players that can do it in different ways.”
O’Boyle said that, coming off a tough year, it’s about the response. Subsequently, she felt that the Rams had a great response. She saw more competitiveness in practices going back to before the season.
Then sophomore guard Taya Robinson, a former Huguenot standout, spoke before the season about the increased energy she saw. This week, Robinson said that she feels the Rams’ energy has as lot to do with their defense being better.
“But I think it’s also just us growing and learning and knowing more about the game,” Robinson said.
VCU began the season with a 17-point win at William & Mary on Nov. 6. Eight days after that, the team went to Chapel Hill and competed with North Carolina — it led for much of the first half before falling 59-47.
On Nov. 18, the Rams earned a 13-point victory over Wake Forest at home, the program’s first win against an ACC school since November 2009.
Nyra Williams, VCU’s junior point guard, said the UNC and Wake Forest games were big wake-up calls for VCU. The confidence was building.
For O’Boyle, it was about how they did it against Wake Forest.
“That was probably the big game that said, ‘OK, hey, this is what our defense is going to be like,’ ” she said. “And, ‘Look, we can do it against, really, anybody.’ ”
Williams said that the Rams take a lot of pride in their defense. They want to hold teams to under 30 percent shooting from the field, which has happened seven times. They also want to hold teams to under 40 points, which has happened three times, including twice in A-10 play.
Entering the day Wednesday, the Rams were all alone at the top of the A-10 standings. But they know there’s still a long way to go, and are taking things one practice and one game at a time.
O’Boyle said her still young group is still trying to get better. And that, in itself, it part of the reason why they’ve seen such an improvement in the first place.
“They’re still trying to learn,” O’Boyle said. “And I think that mental approach has been a big part of our success.”