A smothering defense is leading to wins for the Warlassies

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News

It almost seems counterintuitive to think the Owen High School girl’s basketball team could do better than it has so far. After all, the Warlassies have won their first three games to open the 2017-18 season.

But it’s not how you start - it’s how you finish, those around the team know. Which is why head coach Aaron Fernandez thinks his players' best basketball is in front of them.

Owen Warlassies head coach Aaron Fernandez talks to his team during practice as they prepare for their Nov. 21 game against Smoky Mountain.

The Warlassies started the regular season Nov. 14 at North Henderson, where they picked up their first victory (and Fernandez picked up his first career win as a head coach). Defensively, Owen was dominant, allowing only six field goals, scored by three Knights. The Warelassies won, 49-24.

“It felt great,” the coach said. “We kind of ran away with the game late, so I had time to think about winning my first game down the stretch.”

Senior point guard Kendal Marlowe led the way offensively for Owen with a team-high 17 points and three assists. Her fellow seniors, Dee Graves and Krystyl Keeter, added 12 and 10 points, respectively.

Senior Kendal Marlowe delivers a pass to a cutting Chesney Gardner during Warlassies practice on Nov. 20.

However, it was on the defensive side of the ball where the trio really wreaked havoc. Marlowe recorded nine steals in the opener, while Graves added five and Keeter chipped in three.Together they accounted for all but one of Owen’s takeaways.

“I kind of turned them loose in a full-court press,” Fernandez said. “We have a (defensive) scheme that we like, but within that full-court press they’re allowed to make their own decisions. And they were jumping passes and making good decisions on their own.”

The defensive effort from the Warlassies was exactly what their coach wanted to see in the season opener against North Henderson.

“Offensively we struggled (the team shot 34 percent from the field)," Fernandez said. "A lot of times when a team struggles on that side of the ball, the defense wanes too. That didn’t happen to us.”

The following night, against another 3-A opponent, the Warlassies were put to the test again - Asheville jumped out to a 15-7 lead. Owen’s offensive struggles continued as it shot 35 percent from the field and went into the half down by 10.

Once again, the defense was there to pick up the slack. The Warlassies outscored their opponent 38-18 in the second half for a 60-46 win.

Owen junior Chesney Gardner sets up in the post while first-year head coach Aaron Fernandez directs the offensive player during a Nov. 20 practice.

“The girls were very relaxed going into halftime,” Fernandez said. “While our offense struggled, our defense kept us in the game. They understood that we had an advantage going into the second half and if we kept getting stops, our offense would eventually come around.”

Marlowe, who finished with 11 points against the Cougars, said the defensive effort of the team helped her maintain her composure on the other side of the ball.

“The first three games I got off to rocky starts offensively,” said Marlowe who is the team’s second-leading scorer behind junior Chesney Gardner. “But the hustle on the defensive end helps us climb back into games by keeping them close. When we get other teams in a hurry to score we fluster them, and it creates opportunities for us offensively.”

Owen brought that same mentality to Enka on Nov. 17, when it played its best defensive quarter of the young season, holding the Sugar Jets to just 1 point in the final quarter on its way to a 57-39 win.

The wins over Enka and Asheville showed that not only can the Warlassies play stifling defense, but they can finish games as well, senior Caitlyn Ledford said.

“People have been telling us we’re fourth-quarter kids,” Ledford said. “I feel like we come into the fourth quarter and are able to shut teams down.”

The inability to finish was kind of a theme for the Warlassies last year, even though they won 17 games, Marlowe said.

“At halftime we’re encouraging each other more and offering constructive advice,” Marlowe said. “Last year players would argue if we were down at the half.”

That improved chemistry is helping to create a more a confident team, the senior added.

“We’ve grown a lot,” Marlowe said. “We more seasoned, and we know how to close out games.”

While confidence grows and chemistry improves, so does each player’s understanding of the motion offense implemented by Fernandez. If players to continue to hustle on defense, the offense will follow suit. And the Warlassies will improve.

“Our defensive system will continue to get better, along with our offense,” he said. “It’s not a polished product on either end yet, which is a great thing because we’re sitting at 3-1 and our defense is already pretty darn good and I think it will get better.”