When the season began for Tulane's women's basketball team, it was a given that sophomore forward Sierra Cheatham would be the team's top offensive player.
However, as the Green Wave (5-1) gets set to host Southern Miss (5-2) on Saturday, Cheatham's biggest impact thus far has come on defense. Placed at the top of Tulane's 3-2 trapping press and 1-2-2 half-court zone defense, Cheatham has been just short of a nightmare for Wave opponents.
“When she doesn't get steals, she gets a lot of tips,” coach Lisa Stockton said. “She's really done a great job for us on both ends on off the floor. She's playing very consistently.
“Defensively, she's made tremendous improvement. She's learned to use her length, her rotations are great, and she's rebounding more than she did last year.”
Cheatham is averaging 11.3 points (second on the team) on 50.0 percent shooting, including 41.4 percent on 3-point attempts, her forté. However, the head coaches at Washington and No. 15-ranked California gave credit to Cheatham for her effective defensive play against each's best player. And, after Wednesday's game, Florida Atlantic coach Jim Jabir mentioned her overall effectiveness at the top of the press and zone.
Cheatham said it was a no-brainer to go all in on defense, even for a someone with the potential to be a big-time scorer.
“Defense brings offense,” said Cheatham, who has a team-high 14 steals and is tied for second with three blocked shots. “You can't let your offense dictate your defense, so we come out strong on defense. That's when the shots start falling.
“You just don't have to worry about offense as much when you focus on defense.”
Against Florida Atlantic, Cheatham had five steals, just as many tips and a blocked shot. The Green Wave had a 33-7 advantage in points off turnovers, 21-9 on fast breaks and 50-12 in points in the paint because its defense created so much offense.
After pressing, Tulane falls back into a half-court zone or man-to-man defense. Stockton said Cheatham at the top of the defense forces opponents to widen the court because they have to go to the left or right with the basketball.
“She creates problems because they don't have the vision to find their passes, and it's hard to shoot over Sierra,” Stockton said. “I think it's great for us to have that kind of player on the floor.”
At a long 6-foot, it can be difficult to guard shorter, quicker players who are good, experienced ball handlers man-to-man. However, Stockton said Cheatham has learned to use her length to her advantage.
“She can play off of people more than other people just because of her size,” Stockton said. “So she's usually length instead of trying to pressure up and be in a situation where a quicker player can beat her. If they put the ball on the floor, she does a great job of staying in the play. So, when they get to the basket, they have to shoot over her.”
Cheatham said she also has embraced Tulane's style of changing defenses frequently.
“That's just coach Stockton tricking (opponents),” she said, smiling. “But we take pride in our defense as a team.”
Southern Mississippi won 66-58 last season in Hattiesburg, Miss., outscoring the Wave 20-5 in the second quarter as Tulane got in foul trouble. Stockton is counting on the team's depth in Saturday's game.