At the end of a practice this week, Michigan coach Cheryl Burnett instructed her players to take five free throws — and make at least four of them. Forwards Tabitha Pool and Kelly Helvey quickly paired up and began trading shots.
That Pool went 5-for-5 was no surprise — she has attempted and made more free throws than any other Wolverine this season. But Helvey has struggled from the line this year, shooting just .511. So when Helvey drained all five shots, she flashed a happy, but slightly shocked smile and joked that she just has to work on not missing her layups now.
Helvey’s shooting touch is back — and along with it has come a more positive attitude about her early season struggles.
At the beginning of the season, Helvey was in a distinctive position as the only sophomore or junior on the team. She didn’t have Pool’s experience as a go-to player or the leadership skills that senior BreAnne McPhilamy had developed in her three years at Michigan. But Helvey had spent a full season in Burnett’s program, which gave her more experience than her seven freshmen teammates.
“I knew last year that I was definitely not the first option, with (Jennifer Smith, Stephanie Gandy and Pool),” Helvey said. “This year, I guess I just didn’t really know what I could or could not do within our offense.”
That uncertainty caused Helvey to be more tentative on the offensive end than she had been in the past. For the first 16 games of the season, Helvey averaged just 5.1 points per game. She felt lost within the offense.
That is, until Helvey decided to discuss her struggles with associate head coach Karen Rapier over the past couple weeks. Rapier told Helvey that the problem wasn’t that she was taking too many shots but that she was making poor choices about when to shoot.
“As long as I play my game within our offensive game, then I can pretty much take any shot I want if it’s a good shot,” Helvey said. “If my team’s going to get me open, now, I’m going to take the shot.”
In the past two games, Helvey has applied Rapier’s advice to put together two of her best offensive performances of the season. In Michigan’s lopsided loss at No. 10 Minnesota last Thursday, Helvey scored 11 points, her highest total since notching 16 points against Washington in November. She followed that game with an eight-point output in the Wolverines’ 63-61 win over Indiana on Sunday.
While Helvey’s confidence on offense has returned, her defense has rarely wavered. Against the Golden Gophers, Helvey held Shannon Schonrock to just six points, more than four under her average. But Helvey’s best defensive performance may have come against the Hoosiers, when she limited guard Cyndi Valentin — who had been averaging almost 17 points per game coming in — to seven points on 3-for-12 shooting.
And more than just stopping the opposing team’s top shooter, Helvey continues to get what Burnett calls “effort points” by swatting away balls and forcing turnovers. Pool refers to it as a “fire coming from her.”
“Once we see it from her — see her diving and stuff — it gets the whole team going,” Pool said. “She’s our best defender.”
Tonight, for the third straight game, Helvey will have to defend one of the Big Ten’s top scoring guards, this time in Hawkeye junior Crystal Smith. Smith currently ranks fifth in the conference with 16.9 points per game and shoots .521 from the field.
For the Wolverines to beat Iowa — a team just outside the top-25 in the nation — they will probably need Helvey to shut down Smith in the same way she contained Schonrock and Valentin.
It’s a role Pool is more than confident Helvey can fill.
“She’s stepping up,” Pool said. “She’s cutting, diving to the ball, doing the little stuff. We need people to be cutting to the rim and not just standing there, and she does that. She’s a big key to our team.”