After narrowly defeating Nebraska in its first Big Ten Tournament game, the Michigan women’s basketball team faced one of its toughest challenges all season.
In the quarterfinals, the Wolverines were set to face off against second-seeded Northwestern, a team that had already beaten them twice. Michigan would have to play one of its best games all year on less than a day of rest, while the Wildcats had a week.
And when the Wolverines scored the game’s first eight points in under three minutes, they were clearly up for the challenge. After a 67-59 win, they were set to face a more manageable opponent — sixth-seeded Ohio State. Another start like that, and Michigan would be in good position to advance to the tournament championship game.
But against the Buckeyes, the opposite happened. The Wolverines missed their first seven attempts and made just two shots in the first five minutes. Without the same offensive intensity that it opened with against the Wildcats, Michigan ultimately fell short, 66-60.
The difference between the two games highlights the importance of opening strong on offense for the Wolverines. With the NCAA Tournament — and a potential matchup with a No. 1 or 2 seed — looming, Michigan will need to be almost perfect on offense if it wants to make a postseason run.
That will largely come down to confidence. All year, Barnes Arico and her players have cited confidence as the main factor in strong shooting games, and the lack thereof when they shoot poorly.
“I just think we got going early,” Barnes Arico said after the Northwestern win. “And I think that helped our confidence.”
Contrast that with her remarks from the Ohio State game: “We didn’t make shots early, and I think when you don’t make shots early, that messes with your confidence a little bit. I think our confidence wavered when we didn't make shots early.”
To develop that confidence across the board, the Wolverines will need a more diverse early scoring attack. It’s no secret that the offense runs through sophomore forward Naz Hillmon, and rightfully so — she’s proven herself as one of the most prolific post scorers in the country. Michigan will almost certainly try to go to her right away in the NCAA Tournament.
But when opponents inevitably double her in the paint, her teammates will need to step up early. Against Northwestern, junior forward Hailey Brown did just that, with eight first-half points that helped draw defenders off Hillmon for the rest of the night.
But Saturday, after Hillmon singlehandedly scored half of the Wolverines’ first-half points, the Buckeyes zeroed in on her and held her to just two fourth-quarter field goals. Without other players confident enough to step up, Michigan faltered down the stretch.
“We certainly had to pay attention to Naz Hillmon,” Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff said. “ … A lot of our conversations were trying to keep the ball out of her hands, which is very difficult to do, and then keeping her off the glass.”
To be clear, everyone in the Wolverines’ rotation is capable of scoring, and has shown it in recent games. Five different players scored double-digit points in either the Nebraska or Northwestern game.
But to make a run in the postseason, Michigan will need all of them to have the confidence to shoot and provide relief to Hillmon when she gets doubled. And to do that, they’ll need to score early.