Halfway through the third quarter of Saturday’s game against to Notre Dame, everything was clicking for the Michigan women’s basketball team. The Wolverines had just extended their lead to six amidst improved defensive play. After giving up 43 points in the first half, Michigan held the Fighting Irish to just four in the first five minutes of the second.
But just as fast as the Wolverines seemed to pull away, Notre Dame was able to come back, in large part due to their ability to break down Michigan’s defense.
The opening half was the first time that the Wolverines’ defense had struggled to consistently get stops this season. While strong offensive play gave the Wolverines a lead entering halftime, poor defense prevented them from pulling away, leading to a 76-72 loss.
“The only time in the first half they got their open looks was when we had a lapse,” said junior forward Hailey Brown. “So if we weren’t communicating and left a shooter open. So I don’t think that they were doing anything exceptionally well in the first half. It was just, I would say, our lapses that would give up the open looks.”
Added Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico: “I thought (Notre Dame) did a great job of attacking us inside. Our guards posted up, and they did a large portion of their scoring inside the paint.”
A big focus at halftime for the Wolverines was limiting Notre Dame’s open shots on the perimeter and preventing mismatches against guards in the paint. To open the second half, Barnes Arico decided to switch from man defense — the scheme that Michigan has played all season — to a zone.
The Fighting Irish initially struggled against this new look. The Wolverines alternated between a 2-3 zone and a 1-3-1 zone in order to prevent Notre Dame from getting in a rhythm and figuring out how to break it. The Fighting Irish could not find many open looks in the third quarter — shooting just 5-for-14 and scoring less than in any other quarter.
However, the success of this switch ended there. Turnovers allowed Notre Dame to get easy baskets at the beginning of the quarter and gave its offense confidence, while Michigan became tight on the defensive end. The Fighting Irish took advantage of this and broke the zone with relative ease late in the fourth quarter, leading to easy baskets down the stretch that but the Wolverines away.
“They got the ball into the high-post, mid-post area, and that’s basically how you break the zone,” Brown said. “Any time it goes there you have so many options.”
During Barnes Arico’s tenure, Michigan has not been known for its defense. The Wolverines have finished in the top-50 in scoring defense only once in that span and even finished 148th last season. But due to the structure of this year’s team, improving the defense was a focus for the Wolverines in the offseason.
Michigan doesn’t have as many proven scorers as it has in past years, and an improved defense would take pressure off players who haven’t been asked to score much in their careers.
Additionally, the entry into the starting lineup of senior guard Akienreh Johnson and senior forward Kayla Robbins — both of whom have earned minutes off the bench in the past due to their strong defensive play — and the ability of all five of their starters to guard multiple positions led the Wolverines to have confidence in their defense this season.
While Michigan held three of its first four opponents to under 60 points, it struggled to contain the fast, high-powered offense of Notre Dame. Switching to zone helped mitigate the damage for a short period of time, but the Wolverines’ roster is better suited to play man. All five of the team’s starters have the length and quickness to close open space and force turnovers in a man defense. When they switched to zone, the Fighting Irish had much more space, which eventually led to them finding many open shots in the fourth quarter.
This game was Michigan’s first opportunity to measure how it stacks up with the top teams in the nation, and while they stuck with Notre Dame for its entirety, the Wolverines were unhappy with the result. Against opponents of a similar caliber, Michigan will have to improve without turning to a zone.