Changing the Mentality

2/5/2008 - By: Patrick McDonnell

It’s almost no surprise for fans that there is another entertaining basketball team to watch at Lawlor Events Center.

Spectators can see a focused, unselfish team capable of winning Nevada one more postseason banner for an 11,536-seat arena that is filling up with tournament regalia.

The Wolf Pack women’s basketball team improved to 13-5 overall after defeating traditional powerhouse Louisiana Tech 74-70 for the first time at Lawlor Jan. 24. And as January fades into February, Nevada achieves landmark after landmark for the women’s program — 20 wins might be a threshold the Wolf Pack can reach.

“Helping change the mentality really sets the stage for where we are right now,” says Dellena Criner, a junior point guard who is leading the Western Athletic Conference in scoring at 18 points per game. “Losing is just a phase of mind, and I think winning is also one. They both can be kind of addicting.”

Setting a new foundation

When Criner entered the Nevada program in 2005, the team was coming off its fourth straight losing season. Memories of a program-best 19-win campaign in 2000 were nearly gone.

“Setting the foundation, and helping to build a program and turning it around definitely take more than just one person,” says the 21-year-old accounting major from Hayward, Calif., who plans on graduating next year. “It takes a recruiting class, different players and the coaching staff.”

“She continues to be a student,” fifth-year Nevada head coach Kim Gervasoni says of Criner, a team captain. “She doesn’t have a prima donna attitude. She thinks that she can get better and that’s why she’s progressed so much. She knows there’s a lot more to learn and she’s always in the gym working on things. And, she knows, ‘OK, this is a weakness in my game, I need to go work on it.’ A lot of other kids are scared of that challenge because they’re afraid of failure.”

Criner, already a three-time WAC Player of the Week honoree this season, reached 1,000 points in career scoring against Louisiana Tech, just the eighth Pack women’s player to attain the mark.

A stifling defense

Gervasoni employs Criner, along with senior guard Mikail Price and junior forward Cherlanda Franklin, as focal points in a stifling pressure defense.

“Defense is about hard work, No. 1,” Gervasoni says. “A lot of times, even if you’re out of position, you can still make up for it by hustle. That’s the No. 1 thing I teach my team. You’ve got to go all out. You’ve got to dive for loose balls, make the extra effort.”

“When I first came here, she told me how to build on my defense and how it could change the program around,” Criner remembers. “It was what she was really focusing on. After five months or so, I really bought into the system and it definitely showed how it could benefit us and the program.”

The benefits are obvious for the tenacious Pack defense, which has ranked fourth nationally with nearly 14 steals per game. The Pack is on pace to blow away its school steals record of 385.

An NCAA tourney berth?

Nevada is shooting for its first appearance in the NCAA women’s basketball championships, after earning its inaugural, national postseason berth in program history — the 48-team Women’s National Invitation Tournament — last season. The Wolf Pack was 17-15 in 2006-07, and Gervasoni is 54-85 overall at Nevada.

Gervasoni’s predecessor as head coach, Ada Gee, who was on the bench leading the team to a program-best 117 wins from 1993-2003, said she enjoys the Wolf Pack’s style of play.

“It’s clear now that they have excellent leadership and chemistry,” she said. “I think they understand to be successful you have to play excellent defense and rebound. They’re an exciting team to watch. They’re extremely athletic, and defensively they just get after you for 40 minutes.”

“I’ve definitely grown as a coach,” the 41-year-old Gervasoni said with a laugh. “I used to yell a lot more than I do now. Now I just talk to them. I think when I do raise my voice now they listen more, because they know I’m really serious or upset about something.”

The coaches meet separately during timeouts, and the players use that time to talk about strategy and assignments.

Maturity off the court

That kind of maturity extends off the court as well. Senior forward Andrea Sitton is a Lowe’s Senior CLASS national award candidate for her four-year commitment as a model student-athlete. Team members delivered toys to pediatric patients at Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno during the recent holiday season.

“They have integrity and strong character. I think they are very conscious about their conduct off the court and they make good choices. They’re good students,” Gervasoni says.

But on defense, no one would call Price, Franklin or Criner angels.

After a Criner steal, the transition game begins. Her movements down the court and toward the basket are heavy on rhythm, seemingly musical, but in an unpredictable way. Her steps are like a snazzy stride in a jazz dance or a Gypsy jazz composition for one minute, but similar to someone trying to lull an opponent to sleep during the next movement. It’s a mixed repertoire that easily catches an opponent off guard.

“It’s trying to read the defense,” she says. “Trying to see where their mindset is. I try to look at their body and where they’re positioned and how they’re running. If they’re backpedaling or they’re trying to slide and cut me off, then I try to read from there. Then I try to be aware of my surroundings…is there a teammate coming?

“Most of the time, I’m just trying to get to the rim as fast as possible.”

It’s pure entertainment.

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