Defense is key for Dunston and the Wolverines
That’s how many points the No. 23 Michigan women’s basketball team allowed in the first quarter of its 77-45 win over Fort Wayne. But the Wolverines masterful defensive performance didn’t stop after the opening period.
“I was happy with the way we were able to jump on them right away,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “We really set the tone defensively. That led to a lot of transition for us and some easy buckets early in the first quarter.”
In the first half, Michigan held the Mastodons to an abysmal 7-of-23 shooting from the floor. Of those seven makes, five came from 3-point range. But Fort Wayne’s success with 3s didn’t translate to the second half, where the Mastodons knocked down just two of its 11 attempts.
Throughout the game, the Wolverines held the Mastodons to 16-of-47 shooting. From the opening whistle onward, Michigan played suffocating defense, holding Fort Wayne to 15 fewer points than its season average of nearly 60.
Where the Wolverines excelled was their ability to create turnovers. The Mastodons turned the ball over a staggering 22 times. But it wasn’t just Michigan’s ability to take the ball away. The Wolverines capitalized on Fort Wayne’s mistakes, scoring 27 points off turnovers.
Recently, Michigan’s defense has evolved into a cohesive unit.
Since allowing a season-high 76 points to Marquette about two weeks ago, the Wolverines’ defense has been overpowering. Over the past three games, Michigan has allowed just 40 points per game on 27.9 percent shooting. By comparison, in the nine games prior, Michigan allowed around 64 points per game.
In Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico’s eyes, it's been senior forward Jillian Dunston who has sparked this defensive renaissance.
“Jillian has just been tremendous,” Barnes Arico said. “She usually guards the other team’s best player. It doesn’t really matter if that person’s a guard or a forward. She establishes our team and sets the tone for our team defensively.”
For the past few years, Dunston has been the Wolverines’ defensive anchor – a role she relishes.
“Defense is the best part of my game,” Dunston said. “So I like to show (my teammates) how it should be done and hope I’m leading by the right example.”
And the forward certainly does. Dunston does everything – grabs boards, takes charges and hustles after every loose ball.
Her 11 rebounds per game have been pivotal during Michigan’s six-game winning streak.
“She’s probably been one of the top rebounders in the conference,” Barnes Arico said. “I think that’s a goal of hers, she’s trying to establish herself as one of the best rebounders in the country."
Dunston’s well-rounded play was particularly evident on Saturday, when she tallied 12 rebounds (including six offensive), eight points, three assists, three steals and an emphatic block at the end of the third quarter.
And she didn’t even play in the fourth.
Under the leadership of Dunston and Barnes Arico, the defense has clearly progressed. With Big Ten play lurking, Michigan must continue to evolve defensively as it may be what it takes to win a conference title.