The Florida lacrosse team is in the NCAA Elite Eight for the second time in as many seasons, and the Gators have gotten there with an absolutely suffocating defense.
Florida ranks first nationally in goals allowed per game, giving up just 6.4, almost an entire goal less than the next best team. Interestingly enough, coach Amanda O’Leary credits much of what her defenders are able to do to another sport entirely.
“Our defense is very similar to basketball,” she said. “You could basically put lacrosse on a basketball court and not see much difference. We do a lot of basketball drills.”
In the third year of the program’s existence, Florida has fine-tuned its defensive approach on the lacrosse field by gleaning defensive strategies and techniques from the Gators basketball program.
Men’s basketball coach Billy Donovan was more than accommodating when O’Leary first approached him and asked him if she could sit in on a few of the team’s practices.
“I think that’s the great thing about Florida, is the fact that our coaches are just so supportive of one another,” O’Leary said. “If somebody needs something, whether it’s watching practice or helping with recruits, they’re more than happy to do that. We’ve spent some time in that (basketball) gym.”
O’Leary and her two assistant coaches have made a habit of watching film of both the men’s and women’s teams at Florida to discuss some of the ways the Gators are able to defend so effectively on the hardwood.
Though the Gators play strictly man-to-man on the lacrosse field, there’s a lot of similar footwork between the two sports when it comes to working through screens and picks.
“Picks, which is a great offensive technique, very hard to fight through with the defense,” junior defender Emily Dohony said. “Basketball, lacrosse, most sports use them. I know us, like it’s hard to talk through them, it’s hard to communicate who has left, who has right, who’s getting ball. Watching basketball games, that really helps us break down our footwork and know what to do.”
There are some obvious differences between the two spots. Lacrosse is played on a much bigger field, and there are seven defenders instead of five. There’s also a goalie protecting the net.
Still, when things get compact as an offense gets into what you might call its “halfcourt set,” the ability to communicate freely and work around attackers trying to run a defender off the ball are extremely similar.
“I think lacrosse is just on a bigger format than basketball, and you can always utilize the same offensive techniques and skills,” O’Leary said. “Slides, double-teams, everything translates. A good basketball defender is going to have quick feet, they’re going to be able to slide, they’re going to be able to help, you’re going to have communication.”
With the type of camaraderie Florida has between its sports programs, it’s not surprising the lacrosse team has drawn some inspiration from some of their fellow athletes.
At any given basketball game, you can generally pick out a handful of Florida football players, tennis players, lacrosse players or an athlete or two from just about any sport.
“We go there as a team, I don’t know how many games in the season, to support them and to watch it,” Dohony said.
Florida’s basketball team came up just short this year, falling in the Elite Eight for the second straight year.
The lacrosse team is hoping it doesn’t fall victim to the same fate after stumbling just short of the Final Four a year ago. Florida knows it’ll have its hands full with Penn State on Saturday, so the Gators will be relying on that defense and everything it has learned from the basketball teams.
After three years of coaching her team with some of the same drills the basketball teams do, O’Leary is hoping the experience pays off this weekend with the program’s first-ever trip to the Final Four.
“I think why our team excels is that they’ve been playing together for two and a half, three years now,” she said. “They know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and they cover each other’s backs. When one makes a mistake, the other one is there to sort of help out.”