Facing an opposing lineup with three starters over six feet, the Michigan women’s basketball team was playing at its biggest size disadvantage of the season to date.
But instead of relying on long-range shooting to overcome the disparity as it has in the past, Michigan used a fast-paced offense to attack the rim from the get-go. Behind a relentless attack in the paint led by senior guard Shannon Smith’s 26-points, the Wolverines managed to cut Wake Forest down to size, 83-69.
Smith gave the Wolverines their first lead with a driving layup between several defenders to make the score 10-9, setting the tone for an offense that never trailed the rest of the game.
“The strength of our team is we have the ability to shoot from the outside as well as go inside,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “Shannon was able to get out in transition and get a mid-range game going. We just took advantage of their defense overplaying us and it opened up some lanes to the basket.”
Senior forward Cyesha Goree, Michigan’s biggest threat down low, was the primary beneficiary of the onslaught in the first half. With several plays seemingly drawn up to get her the ball in the paint, Goree scored 13 first-half points and wasn’t fazed at all by the presence of 6-foot-3 Demon Decon forward Dearica Hambry.
The 5-foot-7 Smith showed courage beyond her height, fearlessly driving into the lane without ever taking a 3-point shot. She also made her presence felt on the defensive end, grabbing a career-high 10 rebounds to cap off the double-double.
“My coaches have been on me this offseason about my overall presence on the court,” Smith said. “My percentages have definitely gone up, my rebounding, just my overall game.”
The Wolverines’ offense may have blown the game open, but it was the injury bug that first derailed Wake Forest’s momentum. After jumping out to a 7-2 lead, the Demon Deacons lost sophomore guard Jill Brunori to an apparent leg injury.
Following the injury timeout just three minutes into the game, Michigan used a 2-3 zone defense that stymied Wake Forest’s offense. With the paint completely locked down, the Demon Deacons were forced to take several low-percentage outside shots — including 20 from beyond the arc, just seven of which fell.
The zone defense was a game-specific decision — Barnes Arico had employed exclusively man defense in the San Juan Shootout last week. But facing a player coming off a 40-point performance in Hambry, the coaching staff made a change to catch Wake Forest off-guard.
“I told my staff, ‘I think I want to play zone,’ ” Barnes Arico said. “ ‘Go back and look and see what they do against zone.’ And nobody had played them zone this year. It played out in our favor.”
The Wolverines’ long-range prowess still appeared in flashes — freshman guard Katelynn Flaherty came off the bench with eight points and two treys in her first two minutes — but the game was won in the paint, where Michigan scored 34 points and outrebounded Wake Forest, 35-34.