Michigan's balance proves useful

Thursday, February 21, 2019 - 11:17pm

Senior guard Nicole Munger went 3-6 from beyond the arc to help propel Michigan past Rutgers.

Senior guard Nicole Munger went 3-6 from beyond the arc to help propel Michigan past Rutgers. Buy this photo
Keemya Esmael/Daily

With under three minutes remaining, senior guard Nicole Munger received the ball following an inbounds play. The Michigan women’s basketball team (10-6 Big Ten, 19-9 overall) led Rutgers (10-5, 18-8) by six points, but the Scarlet Knights immediately brought the full-court press on Munger.

It didn’t matter.

Munger created enough space for herself to send a pass to junior guard Akienreh Johnson near the right sideline at half-court. Johnson then connected with sophomore guard Deja Church who capitalized with a layup.

By no means was that play a major momentum-shifter, but it exemplified why the Wolverines won their seventh in a row on Thursday night: they are balanced and willing to share the ball.

“It’s not one person on this team that you can key on and stop,” Munger said. “And that’s what makes it a really dangerous team.”

At no point during that play did Michigan hesitate; the players stayed calm and trusted each other enough to make critical passes.

“I think that everyone’s stepping up,” Munger said. “Everybody is just making plays and we’re playing around each other. No one’s trying to force anything, and I think that’s the strength of our team because we’ll make extra passes and shots are falling.”

A quick glance at Thursday’s stats shows the balance of this squad. Freshman forward Naz Hillmon led her team in scoring with 21 points, but Munger, senior center Hallie Thome and Church hit double figures too. And junior forward Kayla Robbins and sophomore forward Hailey Brown also played key roles.

Having a balanced team is not always rosy. Without a main scorer, teams often don’t know who to fall back on in crunch time.

The Wolverines though, are managing just fine.

“Anybody on any given night can give you 20, and I think that’s what’s so special about our team,” Hillmon said. “ … When you have five players on the floor who can score, who can pass, who can do those little things it’s really hard to stop, really hard to guard. And we know that from playing against teams who have five players on the floor who can score in any way.”

Against Rutgers, multiple players proved crucial at different moments. For instance with the game still close and the shot clock winding down in the third, Brown calmly drained a triple from the right wing to give her team a spark.

Later in the third period, the Scarlet Knights hit a 3-pointer to cut Michigan’s lead to four. But then Munger responded with a triple from the left corner to keep her team ahead.

About a minute later, freshman guard Amy Dilk — in her first game back from a knee injury — reached out near the top of the key to intercept a pass and generate fast-break points for her team.

And the Wolverines post play was solid, too, led by Hillmon and Thome.

“If you get the ball inside to Hallie Thome or Naz Hillmon, that’s probably a 70 percent chance that that ball is going in,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico.

During the last few weeks, Michigan watched film of a game from last season against Illinois. That team, centered around Katelynn Flaherty, was much different. Munger takes note of this.

“We’re so much more versatile this year,” Munger said. “ …  We make the extra passes and everyone’s a threat to knock down shots. That’s just really, really, really tough to guard as a defense, cause usually you have one or two really good defenders.”

The Wolverines’ balanced-attack is helping them hit their stride during this important stretch of the season. If it continues, it could help them realize their post-season aspirations.