Kent Schwartz: When will it come together?
It’s just frustrating.
Frustrating, watching a Michigan women’s basketball team that’s shown its potential over and over again.
Frustrating, knowing that even when just three of its players are on their A-game, the team can compete with anyone.
Frustrating, knowing that rarely happens.
Sophomore guard Amy Dilk can cut apart defenses on her way to the basket. Sophomore forward Naz Hillmon can be unstoppable down low. Junior forward Hailey Brown defies her position, raining down threes. Senior forward Kayla Robbins takes two steps, and suddenly she has a wide open layup. Senior guard Akienreh Johnson locks down opposing defenses.
After the Wolverines beat Michigan State on Jan. 5, Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico referred to multiple plays when everything was clicking and where secondary scoring targets came up huge, namely from the 3-point line.
“Sometimes we miss those, and when we miss them it’s a different type of game,” Barnes Arico said. “But tonight we made them, and that’s something our team works on every day, is making those shots and having the confidence to take those shots in big games, and tonight we did both of those things.”
The problem is, when it’s against good opponents, more often it’s “most of the time” instead of “sometimes.” Brown and Johnson go cold from three. Dilk and Robbins get stonewalled in the lane. Hillmon is suffocated at the post. There’s no bench help, no spark.
In Sunday’s 77-49 loss to No. 17 Maryland all the dirty secrets of Michigan bubbled up at once on the court. Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. No 3-pointers, no momentum swingers, no penetration.
Barnes Arico said they were pressing, forcing the extra pass. Johnson pointed to the Terps’ athleticism, how the Wolverines are still getting used to competing against high-level opponents — a hangover from a weak nonconference schedule.
They couldn’t springboard off their defense, one of the best in the conference, because they lost the ball at halfcourt more often than they made a shot.
“So much of it is mental as much as it is physical at this point,” Barnes Arico said. “But Naz Hillmon, Kayla Robbins, Amy Dilk are better than turning the basketball over that many times.”
And they are. In the second half of the game against the Spartans, Michigan shot 77.7 percent from the field. Dilk and Hillmon plowed through anything Michigan State threw at them, and in the fourth quarter the Wolverines didn’t turn the ball over.
After that high, though, Michigan faced another rival in Ohio State. On the road, in a barely inhabited arena. Just as it seemed the team was clicking — its wheels oiled, rolling, coming for you — the Wolverines laid an egg.
As quickly as Brown’s confidence had reappeared, it disappeared. When driving to the basket, Robbins and Dilk were repelled and only Hillmon could find success under the basket — until Ohio State decided to defend the only thing working for Michigan. The bench, showcasing a spark, perhaps, in the Michigan State game, returned to being seat-heaters.
A dud’s a dud, though there were bigger fish to fry — a rematch with ranked Maryland. A chance to even the score, show this team can beat one of the best in the country. That game wasn’t a dud, it was an implosion.
The puzzle, nearly complete, fell apart.
Maybe now that the Wolverines came so close to realizing their potential, they’ll only take a couple days rest or a win over a struggling Wisconsin to get their mojo back. A couple of games where they’re in control, where they can get their confidence back.
After all, last season Michigan went through a January where it lost five of six games before ending the season winning eight of nine.
This year, there are 13 games left to put the puzzle back together.
Kent Schwartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or, preferably, on Twitter @nottherealkent.