With Naz Hillmon on the floor and effective, the Michigan women’s basketball team has the ability to be one of the best offensive teams in the Big Ten.
But when teams shut her down, or when she is forced to sit with foul trouble, the Wolverines’ offense is missing their identity. Michigan’s offense runs through Hillmon in the post, and without her presence, open shots are often hard to come by.
Five minutes into Sunday’s game against No. 22 Indiana, Hillmon tried to rip a rebound away from Hoosiers forward Brenna Wise in the backcourt and was called for her second foul and sat for the next eight minutes.
With Hillmon on the floor for the first five minutes of the game, the Wolverines’ offense was explosive. Hillmon didn’t attempt a shot, but her presence provided open shots for other players.
Freshman guard Maddie Nolan drained two open 3-pointers and drove along the baseline for an easy layup, while senior guard Akienreh Johnson knocked down two open jumpers. The duo combined for all 12 of Michigan’s points in the first 3:30, and the Wolverines jumped out to a six point lead.
“I just think Naz attracts so much attention from their defense, obviously with the double-teams,” Nolan said. “Everyone did a really good job of skipping and finding me.
But when Hillmon left the floor a minute later with Michigan leading by four, it couldn’t find open shots. The Wolverines scored just four points the rest of the quarter and Indiana went on a 16-6 run in the eight minutes without Hillmon on the floor to take a six-point lead. The Hoosiers never looked back, handing Michigan a crushing 78-60 loss.
“When she goes out, teams tend to space the floor a little more,” Nolan said. “We just didn’t seem to attack as much as we did when Naz was in, so we need to work on that.”
When Hillmon returned in the second quarter, the Wolverines’ offense improved despite Hillmon being held scoreless, and they only trailed Indiana by three points at half.
Hillmon looked more like her usual self out of the break — she scored 13 points in the second half — but the Hoosiers blew past Michigan in the second half, shooting 63 percent from the floor in the half.
Despite Hillmon contributing offensively, the Wolverines’ offense struggled to keep up with Indiana. As Michigan’s biggest offensive threat, Hillmon often faces double teams from opposing defenses, but she had more trouble with it Sunday that she usually does.
“I just didn’t make the decisions quick enough,” Hillmon said. “But they were very, very aggressive in it and knew exactly what spots to get to and how to take away the double as well as my reverse layup and things of that nature.”
The Hoosiers prevented Hillmon from getting easy touches, and when she did, pressure was there right away. Occasionally, she was able to pass out of it and find an open player for an easy basket, but more often that not, Hillmon turned it over or passed it up top and the Wolverines had to reset.
“If Naz has two people on her it means somebody else is going to be open,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “We need to take advantage of that.”
Hillmon has faced double teams more consistently over the past few games, and Sunday showed that against better teams, the Wolverines can’t always rely on her to break out of it on her own.
“We need multiple people to step up into those roles,” Barnes Arico said, “and take advantage of when Naz is facing that double team and get better with our ball movement.”