It was almost too easy for Izabel Varejão.
The freshman center, defended by a Rutgers guard six inches shorter than her, received a pass from sophomore guard Amy Dilk in the post with her back to the basket. Without hesitating, she faked one direction, pivoted the other, and knocked down a turnaround jumper to put the Michigan women’s basketball team up 20 en route to a 71-57 win on Sunday.
But this mismatch didn’t come because the Wolverines ran a play that forced a guard to switch onto Varejão. Instead, it was a choice the Scarlet Knights made due to the lineup that Michigan had on the floor, which featured Varejão, sophomore forward Naz Hillmon and junior forward Hailey Brown — all players who typically play in the post.
“There were times when Izabel was defended by (a shorter guard), and we were able to post her up,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “So really trying to take advantage of the mismatches that we’re gonna have if we go with that big lineup.”
When senior forward Kayla Robbins suffered a season-ending ACL injury last weekend against Nebraska, the Wolverines lost a key part of their most common lineup. Without a clear sixth player on the team who could step into Robbins’ spot on the wing, Barnes Arico looked to experiment with some different lineups. While the big lineup wasn’t used in the second half — Brown picked up her fourth foul just four minutes into the third quarter — it was arguably Michigan’s most effective group, giving Rutgers problems on both ends of the court.
While the Wolverines’ style of play changed significantly with this lineup, it was clear that they were comfortable in their new roles. 3-point shooting was more of a focus, as Brown moved from the post to the wing, giving Michigan the true deep threat that it had been lacking on the perimeter. The Scarlet Knights devoted much of their attention to Hillmon and Varejão in the paint, giving open 3-point chances to Brown and senior guard Akienreh Johnson.
Defensively, the Wolverines switched to a zone, and their length down low allowed them to close out on shooters and prevent Rutgers from getting the ball to its bigs — often resulting in bad passes when it was attempted. Michigan forced five Scarlet Knights turnovers in the six minutes the three bigs were on the floor together.
Most importantly, this lineup allowed Varejão to get comfortable and stay on the floor. Varejão has shown flashes of high-quality play, but poor defense, foul trouble and decreased offensive production have kept her off the floor in Big Ten play. Sunday, she played 19 minutes — her most in almost a month.
The biggest change for her was the zone the Wolverines played for much of the game with her on the floor. Varejão has shown immense offensive talent at times, but recently, teams have gone after her on the defensive end, drawing fouls from her and forcing Barnes Arico to take her out before she can get into a rhythm. The zone took pressure off her defensively, limiting one-on-one matchups and keeping the ball on the perimeter.
“Most freshmen come in and don’t know how to defend, have never had to defend, don’t really know the toughness of what it takes to play in the Big Ten,” Barnes Arico said. “I think that’s what Izabel is learning now, how to be strong, how to be tough, how to be physical, and how to defend.”
Because she was able to stay on the court, Varejão had her best offensive game. She scored eight points — tied for her most since late November — and added two assists, both of which came on tough passes not typically seen from a center.
“She came in with a confident mindset, playing defense, getting her shots off,” Hillmon said. “(Varejão) is instant offense, honestly. She’s trying to work on the little things so she can stay on the court, like defense and rebounding, but she was really confident today.”
Barnes Arico identified Varejão as someone who would need to step up in Robbins’ absence. Sunday, she found a lineup that helped get the most out of her.