When New Bedford girls basketball coach Mickey Gonsalves prepares his practice plan, he separates the session into three sections.
First, he runs his team through full-court drills, working on their offense, conditioning, and overall athleticism. Next come individual drills, where each player can work on her skills and improve areas of weakness. Finally, and most importantly, Gonsalves runs his team through defensive drills.
“I’m a defensive-minded coach, I’ve stressed that,’’ Gonsalves said. “We’ve won a lot of games this year because we shut the opponent down. I stress to the team everyday that we have to play defense. That’s basically our trademark.’’
The Whalers, who play in the Big Three with Durfee and Brockton, sit at 12-2 on the season. Their losses came to a Barnstable team that surprised New Bedford in its season opener, and to Rhode Island defending Division 1 champion La Salle. The Whalers have already avenged the loss to Barnstable by winning the rematch, 55-19.
“In our two losses we played outstanding defensively and we just shot a poor percentage,’’ Gonsalves said.
That poor shooting percentage is one of the reasons the Whalers play a defensive-minded game. Gonsalves says New Bedford doesn’t have a strong offensive team. At only eight deep and with no go-to outside shooter, Gonsalves has gotten creative with his offense.
“We’re a good athletic team so what we try to do is we spread the floor and attack matchups,’’ Gonsalves said. “Then we have a player who is a good low-post player so we pound it in to her.’’
That player is senior Vanessa Suarez, a small forward who can gain tough baskets on the block and spread out to shoot the 3-ball. Averaging 15 points a game, Suarez’s versatility makes her one of New Bedford’s biggest offensive threats.
The Whalers’ other star player is Alexia Barros, a senior point guard who is in charge of running the team’s offense.
“She’s an outstanding shooter but yet she is very clever with the basketball. We spread the floor with her and try to create something,’’ Gonsalves said.
Barros also averages 15 points a game, but most of her responsibility lies in her decision-making on the court. New Bedford has played in many close games this season, including a 41-40 win over Dartmouth and a 53-49 victory over a tough Duxbury team.
When the game is on the line, Gonsalves puts the ball in Barros’s hands, trusting her to lead the offense.
“The key to our offense is to get Barros the ball. I trust her decision-making. We take advantage of the mismatches. We run a flex offense where we look to get shots at the elbow,’’ Gonsalves said.
Despite the efforts of Barros and Suarez, Gonsalves said New Bedford still isn’t an established offensive force, which makes the defensive aspect of its game more important.
The Whalers play a half-court man-to-man defense. Gonsalves feels the half-court option keeps his players fresher. In previous years, when the bench was deeper, Gonsalves would move into a full-court defense.
This season is the 11th that Gonsalves has coached the varsity squad, and he says this is the best defensive team he’s seen. He credits the Whalers’ strong defense to two things - the commitment of his team and the performance of senior Brianna Perry.
“Defensively you will always be good because [the players] comprehend what you teach them,’’ Gonsalves said. “That’s the key, is what they put in during the offseason. We had a good commitment from all the girls in the summer league program and there are a handful of them who play AAU.’’
Gonsalves says Perry is the best defensive player he has ever coached.
“The thing about her is she covers the other team’s toughest player. She could cover someone who is 6-3, and she’s only 5-7 or 5-8,’’ said Gonsalves. “She’s a feisty player. Whatever she gives us offensively is gravy, because she is one of the best defenders.’’
With tournament time just around the corner, Gonsalves believes his team could make a run, but also acknowledges there are areas the Whalers still need to improve on.
“Offensively we have to play better as a unit. We have to find our way,’’ Gonsalves said. “There are times where we are one and done offensively. There are times I feel that we are too impatient, it’s always a good look, but there are times where we need to make that extra pass.
“As we get closer to tournament time that has to be already established, that can’t be done on the fly. You have to be able to make game-time decisions.’’
Playing in the Big Three, Gonsalves feels the Whalers are well prepared for what they will face come tournament time. Because they only have four league games, New Bedford is forced to play more non-league games, tending to compete against the top teams in their respective leagues.
They beat Coyle & Cassidy, who sits on top of the Eastern Athletic Conference standings, and they beat a ranked Fairhaven team last week, 42-41.
“All our games are tough for us,’’ Gonsalves said. “There is never a day off.’’
Games of the week La Salle at No. 1 Andover, Mon., 6:30 p.m. - The defending Division 1 champion Golden Warriors (13-0) will welcome the Rhode Island Division 1 defending champions in what will prove to be a tough non-league matchup.
No. 8 Archbishop Williams at No. 5 Arlington Catholic, Fri., 6:30 p.m. - The two top teams in the Central Catholic league will face off for the second time this season. The Bishops handed the Cougars their only loss of the season in the first meeting.
No. 3 Braintree at No. 15 Wellesley, Tues., 6 p.m. - Braintree remains undefeated at 12-0 but will face a tough contest as it travels to Wellesley (10-3).
No. 10 New Bedford at Duxbury, Thurs., 6 p.m. - The Whalers narrowly escaped their first tilt against Duxbury with a 53-49 victory. Thursday’s road rematch will be a tough test for New Bedford (12-2). Both of the Whalers’ losses have come on the road.