In both of its games so far, the Michigan women’s basketball team has attempted at least 20 3-pointers — a statistic that occurred only one time all of last season.
The change in style is largely due to one player in particular: Naz Hillmon.
Against both Western Michigan and Bradley, Hillmon was the defense’s main focus. She often faced double and triple-teams as opposing defenses dared other Michigan players to beat them from the perimeter. In both games, open 3-point opportunities were plentiful, and the Wolverines were willing to take what they were given.
“We make sure we’re taking threes every day and getting up shots every day, because we know the attention that Naz is gonna face,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “If people are double-teaming the post, somebody else has gotta step in and make a play.”
Added junior forward Hailey Brown: “It definitely opens (the floor) up. If my player wants to go on double or help off, then that’s an easy kick out to me, or honestly with anybody.”
In Friday’s game, the Wolverines only went 5-for-20 from 3-point range, but it was clearly a focus of their offense. On Sunday, this percentage improved. Michigan shot 11-for-23 from beyond the arc, and two of its biggest runs were sparked by efficient 3-point shooting.
Rather than forcing the ball into the paint and taking contested shots or risking turnovers with Hillmon drawing in bodies, the Wolverines took these open 3-pointers and didn’t lose confidence in themselves when they weren’t falling. Freshman guard Michelle Sidor — who has received praise from both her teammates and Barnes Arico on her ability to score off the bounce — attempted 16 shots in the two games, 11 of which were from deep.
“Obviously I can shoot … but I can definitely drive too and score in a lot of different ways,” Sidor said. “I didn’t display that a lot this weekend because I was mostly just coming off screens and shooting.”
These 3-pointers didn’t just come from Michigan’s top shooters such as Sidor. Over the weekend, nine different Wolverines made a 3-point shot, including every forward on the roster except Hillmon. The ability of the Michigan’s bigs to knock down these shots, in turn, opens up the paint more, forcing defenses to cover the perimeter.
“I think it’s great when you have a great compliment to Naz in another post player that can face-up and knock down threes, and our three other post players are really good at that,” Barnes Arico said. “So we just gotta have the confidence, if Naz is being doubled, to make those shots and take those shots.”
It was no coincidence that Hillmon registered a double-double on Sunday. With Michigan shooting more effectively, the opposing defense had to shift some of their focus away from Hillmon and towards its shooters.
“It opens up the floor a lot,” Hillmon said. “You have to close out to those 3-point shooters, and it opens up the lane so much for me to get long or short rebounds, so having great shooters on my team … helps me a lot.”
Despite streaky shooting, the Wolverines decidedly won their first two games because of their ability to catch fire at any time. As the competition gets better, it will be crucial for them to consistently make open 3-pointers to force teams to stop packing the paint against Hillmon, allowing her to be as dominant as she was last season.
“If we’re able to knock down shots it’ll become a lot more easier for her to get her quick scores and stuff like that in the paint,” Brown said. “Just being able to … shoot from the outside forces defenses to kind of pick and choose how they want to defend and what they want to take away.”