Free throws and defense propel Michigan past Liberty

Junior shooting guard Nicole Munger credited Michigan's offseason work for its success at the free throw line.

Junior shooting guard Nicole Munger credited Michigan's offseason work for its success at the free throw line. Buy this photo
Max Kuang/Daily
Sunday, November 12, 2017 - 5:35pm

It’s not always glamor that wins the game.

In the No. 24 Michigan women’s basketball team’s 74-50 blowout against Liberty, the Wolverines relied on a strong performance from the free throw line – a major differentiator in the game. The Lady Flames got to the line just 14 times and converted on just six free throws. On the other hand, Michigan shot 21 of 26 from the charity stripe.

As junior shooting guard Nicole Munger explained, the team focused on free throws during this offseason.

“We ran a lot from missed free throws,” Munger said with a laugh. “And now they’re going in, and it’s paying off and we’re (also) in good condition. We worked a lot in practice and by ourselves just because we know they’re free points.”

And an improvement from the free throw line has been evident in Michigan’s young season. The Wolverines were 18 of 21 from the line in their season opener against George Mason. While just two games in, the team has averaged 23.5 free throw attempts, up from 16.8 last season.

“We just did a good job of moving the ball,” said freshman forward Hailey Brown. “With that, we found ways to draw fouls. Whether that be a dish and then an and-one, or a drive and attack. We were able to put people in the right positions to finish and draw fouls.”

The first half saw a particularly high number of fouls, with Liberty committing 14 to Michigan’s nine. Twenty-four of the Wolverines’ free throw attempts came within the first two quarters. This was, in large part, a byproduct of Michigan’s ability to get into the bonus early in the quarter.  

“We did a great job on drawing fouls early by picking up touch fouls,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “And that brought us to the line. I thought that’s really what gave us our lead – when Katelynn (Flaherty) was able to get to the line so early.”

To no one’s surprise, Flaherty converted on those opportunities, shooting a perfect 10 for 10. She finished the game with 20 points – only nine shy of becoming Michigan all-time leading scorer.

Barnes Arico also explained that getting the right players – like Flaherty and senior center Hallie Thome – to the line has contributed to the Wolverines success.

The impressive free throw display wasn’t the only thing that stood out, as the defense was equally impressive. By allowing 50 points, Michigan far outshined its 2016-17 average of 61.8 points allowed per game.

“We started off in our zone, and I think it was very effective,” Brown said. “Whether it was the 22 press or falling back to the two-three … our zone did a good job of putting pressure. I think with our length we can cause a lot of havoc for the other players.”

The full court press was a key tactic for the Wolverines. The game plan was implemented by assistant coach Wesley Brooks and forced the Lady Flames to speed up the game, helping Michigan force 22 turnovers.

In the semifinals of the Preseason WNIT, the Wolverines are likely to play No. 9 Louisville. In order for Michigan to overcome a stout Cardinals team, these unglamorous areas must continue to be a focus.