By any measure, driving to the hoop isn’t easy. The ballhandler must run fast enough to get past a defender, must control the basketball and must be on the lookout for shooting opportunities or open teammates. And with No. 14 Minnesota’s 6-foot-2 All-American center Janel McCarville lurking under the basket on defense, dribble penetration becomes an even more intimidating proposition.
But during Sunday’s 76-55 loss to Minnesota, sophomore Kelly Helvey and freshman Becky Flippin showed no fear driving at the Golden Gophers’ mammoth post players. In a game in which Michigan (1-10 Big Ten, 5-17 overall) struggled to find its rhythm, the duo’s aggressiveness allowed it to score 27 of the Wolverines’ 55 points.
Helvey established herself as a focal point of Michigan’s offensive game plan from the get-go. She scored six points in the game’s first 10 minutes, including an impressive driving layup that cut the early Minnesota lead to one, 15-14.
“I thought we did a pretty terrible job defending her,” Minnesota coach Pam Borton said. “Every time we play against Kelly, she has a great game. She’ll be at the top of our scouting report next time.”
But the Golden Gophers did not have such trouble against other Michigan players. Faced with Minnesota’s pressuring defense, the Wolverines consistently found themselves stalled on the perimeter with the shot clock winding down. In these situations, Michigan looked to Helvey, whose strong drives to the rim often opened up good scoring opportunities.
“Kelly was getting a lot of great dribble penetrations at the end of the shot clock when we have to dribble penetrate and either kick or finish the layup,” Michigan coach Cheryl Burnett said. “And she was really aggressive with the basketball.”
In the end, Helvey matched a career high with 16 points on 6-for-13 shooting. She also went 4-for-5 from the line, an impressive showing for a player who entered the game shooting just 47 percent from the charity stripe.
“I like to go out and have fun,” Helvey said. “I try to be a part of the scoring every game — I know some games it doesn’t happen. But I know, in games like this, someone’s got to step up. (On Sunday), I took that upon myself.”
Helvey wasn’t the only ballhandler making things happen for the Wolverines. Flippin scored 11 points in 25 solid minutes off the bench. Just after entering the game for the first time, the 5-foot-6 Flippin proved her willingness to drive into the lane. She beat Minnesota’s Shannon Shonrock, drew a foul and drilled both free throws.
In addition, Flippin’s court vision was uncanny, especially in the first half, when she racked up all five of her assists. Thanks in part to Flippin’s unselfish play, the Wolverines stayed within striking distance, going into halftime down 33-27.
“Some days (the passing’s) there, some days it’s not,” Flippin said. “Just working on the team chemistry in practice allows it to carry over into the game.”
In the second half, Flippin’s main contribution was her scoring. She led the Wolverines with nine second-half points, including both of Michigan’s second-half 3-pointers. But Flippin’s most impressive play of the game came inside the arc. Four and a half minutes into the second half, Flippin caught the ball on the left wing and exploded to her left with three Minnesota defenders in pursuit. She shrugged them off, absorbed a foul and converted the layup. Flippin’s free throw completed the 3-point play, which put the Wolverines within single digits for the final time.
“Becky does a great job in the open floor, finding the open player and seeing where the help comes from,” Burnett said.
After both Helvey and Flippin suffered through midseason offensive struggles, the duo is now clicking on all cylinders. Helvey is averaging 12 points over her last three games, while Flippin has averaged 11.7 points during the same span. And on Sunday, they proved that they wouldn’t be intimidated –— even by the most fearsome of defenders. That can only be a good sign for a team struggling to find its rhythm in Big Ten play.