PHOENIX – Upon being hired in April 2020, GCU women’s basketball coach Molly Miller walked into a defensive project.
GCU had finished outside the national top 250 in both steals and turnovers forced per game in 2019-20. That season saw the Lopes struggle down the stretch with four straight losses before the 2020 WAC tournament was canceled because of the global pandemic.
GCU had improved from the previous season, but Miller saw even more potential.
“We were doing 85% defense when I first arrived,” Miller said, describing the program’s defensive style before she implemented her game plan. “I wanted to implement the defensive system and we were going to hang our hat defensively on that side of the ball.”
Her system saw GCU create havoc on an elite level immediately.
In her first season the Lopes averaged 13.4 steals per game, good enough to be ranked second among Division I teams. Last season, GCU placed third with 13.6 steals per game.
This season, the Lopes rank fourth in Div. I with 13.0 steals per game and ninth with 21.3 forced turnovers per game.
The Lopes are in a competitive race for second place in the WAC. They sit in fourth place in the traditional standings at 10-4 in conference play, just a half-game behind Cal Baptist. Southern Utah leads the standings at 13-1.
However, the WAC has turned to advanced metrics and its own resume seeding system to seed its conference tournament. GCU sits in third place there, ahead of Cal Baptist.
Miller is now turning to offense to achieve the one thing GCU has come a game away from achieving in her first two seasons: a first NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament appearance.
“I think our defense got us there and then we plugged in some offensive players this year that I think can help get us over the hump,” Miller said. “Integrating some more consistent scoring and shooting was kind of a top priority of ours when we were recruiting for this year.”
GCU’s offense has improved greatly from last season, especially its scoring. The Lopes’ output is up by nearly 7 points per game thanks to improved shooting numbers.
Junior Tiarra Brown in particular is shooting the ball much better than last season. Her field goal percentage is up 12% with an eight percentage point increase from 3-point range as she averages 10.7 points per game this season.
She said her deep shooting in particular is part of her efforts to be an all-around scorer.
“Just being more of a threat on the 3-point line, knowing that I can still shoot the three as well as perfecting my mid-range more instead of just being a slasher,” Brown said.
She is one of three players averaging more than 10 points per game, a big step forward from last season where one player achieved the mark with three more falling short by a point or less.
Miller said this year’s offense aims to fix consistency issues from the past two years.
“I think the difference between this year and the previous years is that our half-court offense is a little bit more sophisticated, but we’re never satisfied,” she said. “We’re still looking at ways to fine tune and get the best out of these players and where we can put them in the best situations to help our team.”
Brown is also a crucial veteran leader on a team with 10 new players. She said she tries to lead her teammates by example, especially knowing that most of her teammates this season are entering a new system.
One of those players, sophomore Aaliyah Collins, is particularly thriving in Miller’s system. She leads the team and ranks second in the WAC with 2.6 steals per game.
Though her offensive numbers have dropped from her freshman year at Chicago State, where she was named to the All-WAC Second Team, she said her mental game is better this season.
“My mentality has definitely improved with being more positive and learning to focus on the controllables instead of the things that I can’t control,” Collins said.
She also said returning players like Brown have benefitted her immensely.
“They’ve helped a lot because they know this system already,” Brown said. “So, having them just to talk and ask questions about it, they’re very receptive and will help by the drop of a dime. It’s been a life saver with them here.”
Chemistry building between the newcomers and the veterans began back in the summer when Miller said team dinners and team trips to the lake helped bond the squad.
However, there is always improvement to be made.
“I think that still is a working document,” Miller said. “We’re discovering new things about each other every day, but that relationship building and that team-first mentality is important as we move forward.”
GCU enters its final two-game homestand with games against Utah Valley on Thursday and UT Arlington on Saturday.
Road games against Utah Tech and WAC-leader Southern Utah round out GCU’s regular-season schedule.
“I think that is where in February, you really kick into high gear,” she said. “You want to be playing your best basketball towards the end of February, beginning of March.”
Motivation to achieve that will not be a problem, as Brown said the team is unified in doing everything necessary to get the program over the hump and into March Madness for the first time.
“They know how much success we had in the past year,” she said. “So, everything that we do, they’re bought in and it’s not questionable. We just do what needs to be done so that we know how far we can go.”