So far this season, the Michigan women’s basketball team’s greatest advantages over its mid-major opposition have been its size, speed and strength.
Every player in its starting lineup is over six feet — a rarity in women’s basketball. With three starting forwards, it looks to dominate the paint every game.
And the Wolverines succeed, when they find space and hold onto the ball. Sophomore forward Naz Hillmon is the team’s leading scorer, followed by freshman center Izabel Varejão and senior forward Kayla Robbins. Their length is their strength — 58 percent of points come from shots inside the arc.
Against Eastern Michigan on Nov. 27, though, Michigan struggled early on producing offense. Missed shots, missed free throws and turnovers plagued the team in the first quarter.
And then on Sunday, Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico changed the game plan completely. The entire team played in the first quarter, as the Wolverines struggled to take a lead against Morgan State. Barnes Arico decided to press the Bears.
“We’re trying to figure out with our rotations and what’s the best lineup to be able to (press),” Barnes Arico said. “It’s hard if you’re playing (Hillmon) 37 minutes a game to be pressing the entire time, but tonight with an opportunity to use our 11 players, we were able to press a little bit more, which is great.”
The shift started early in the first half, when sophomore guard Danielle Rauch came on the court for sophomore guard Amy Dilk. There would be no break from the onslaught of pressure for the visitors. After a tight first half, the Bears finally broke — turning the ball over seven times and giving Michigan 13 points off turnovers.
“We were able to get into the open court in transition so it was higher percentage shots,” Barnes Arico said. “In the first half we were taking sometimes contested (shots) and turning the ball over a lot, so I think our defense helped us create our offense which helped us settle in a little bit more.”
Added senior guard Akienreh Johnson: “When we don’t get stops on defense it kind of messes up our offense because we lose our confidence, things like that. But our ability to get stops, get steals, get rebounds, things like that, we really pride ourselves on that.”
When Morgan State finally crumbled under the Wolverines’ press, the floodgates opened for Michigan’s offense. Shooters like freshman guard Michelle Sidor enjoyed an abundance of time and space to get shots off, Sidor sank four 3-pointers on her way to a career high 16 points. As a whole, the team shot 61 percent in the second half, compared to 47 percent in the first.
Thanks to the press, the Wolverines had found their rhythm.
“In the first half we kind of tried to do one pass and shot a lot of the times,” Johnson said. “But in the second half we calmed down and got the two, three, four passes and then the duck in or the kick out to the three. So I think it was a lot more of rhythm and then confidence.”
In the second half against Morgan State, Michigan put a lid on its turnovers — its biggest early-season problem — committing just three.
For the first time all season, the Wolverines seemed to use their dominant athleticism in another way beyond controlling the glass, freeing up their guards to steal the spotlight in a way they haven’t all season.