NEW BRITAIN - There was plenty for Innovation boys basketball head coach Matt Lance to cheer about as he watched his Ravens throttle Aerospace 76-45 in Friday night’s CRAL Tournament semifinals.
There were the five different Innovation scorers who finished in double figures, or the defense which forced 29 turnovers to race out to an early 13-point lead and never look back. But what set off the most emotional reaction from Lance came from moments that seemed relatively minimal to the game’s outcome.
When Innovation’s defense wasn’t forcing a turnover in the backcourt, Lance leaned in over the sidelines and emphatically clapped his hands as his perimeter defenders denied a driving lane. Any time one of the Jets’ guards retreated back beyond the 3-point line, seeing no space to drive or bounce a pass into the low post, Lance shook his fists and let out more vocal praise than when his team knocked down a 3-pointer or blocked a shot.
Again, the moment seems minimal, but only to an outsider. To Lance and Innovation, it represents the very fabric of the team’s identity, and the key to its success. If a spectator were to describe the Ravens’ style of play, Lance hopes they would start with his defense.
“I tell my kids all the time, you’re going to have games where none of your shots are going to fall, no matter how well you play offensively,” Lance said. “The one thing that is consistent is the effort you play defensively. You could miss all your shots but if you’re putting in the effort defensively, you keep yourself in the game long enough until you eventually start to score.”
On Friday, there were no struggles to score, thanks to the defense recording a turnover on each of the first nine Aerospace possessions to start the game, igniting a 13-0 run that set the tone for a dominating performance that sent Innovation into the CRAL Tournament final to defend the title the program has won last season. While the majority of the Ravens’ bench wore smiles after the lopsided victory, Lance showed a particular concern for the defensive performance over the second and third quarters. The final score was in Innovation’s favor, but its identity was tainted through the middle quarters of the game, which is unacceptable to Lance.
“Coach says it all the time, that defense has to be our go-to,” Carlos Gonzalez said after scoring 15 points on Friday. “It’s our calling card, and it has been for the past two years.”
Maintaining such an identity and style of play doesn’t come easy. Even Lance acknowledges the extensive conditioning work that goes into a team that wants to force turnovers and run in transition, only to do it all again on the following possession, and repeat for four quarters. In the second half of Friday’s win, Lance could be heard shouting from the bench as his group made its way down the floor.
“Don’t be the last one back down,” Lance shouted as his team hustled over midcourt.
Lance knows he can push his team, because he sees the running and conditioning they have put in since offseason practice, and continue to do even as the conference tournament winds down.
“We always say fatigue is mental,” Lance said. “But to play this style, you have to be in good shape. We’ve had to keep going with that, because if this is the way we’re going to play, we better not get tired.”
If the team has fatigue at this point in the season, it’s not showing it. The constant movement on defense may be taxing, but the Ravens are enjoying it. Given how much winning has come from Lance’s style, why wouldn’t they?
“It’s fun,” Gonzalez said. “It’s fast-paced and high-energy. It keeps adding on to wins, so why not keep it up?”