In its first game of the season on Oct. 30 — an exhibition against Northwood — the Michigan women’s basketball team shot just 65 percent from the free-throw line, compared to 70 percent across last season.
While far from ideal, Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico didn’t seem too worried in her postgame press conference then. With more emphasis on free-throw shooting in practice, Barnes Arico thought it wouldn’t be a problem come the regular season.
Three weeks later, with a matchup against Notre Dame looming, the Wolverines had shown little improvement from the line. Through its first four games of the regular season, Michigan had shot over 70 percent from the line just once. The talent gap between the Wolverines and the mid-major opponents they played earlier in the season allowed Michigan to get away with poor free-throw shooting. However, the Wolverines knew they would need to shoot better from the line to beat the Fighting Irish.
In a closely-contested game from start to finish, Michigan made just 21 of its 36 free-throw attempts and lost by four points to Notre Dame on Nov. 23. In the fourth quarter, with the lead that the Wolverines held for most of the game gone, they missed five free throws — more than in any other quarter in the game.
In response to the poor free-throw shooting performance, the coaching staff attempted to create high-pressure free-throw situations in practice.
“Coach will put us on the line and if we don’t hit them, we have to run,” said freshman guard Michelle Sidor. “So it’s kind of like a game situation. You feel a little pressure because it’s not just shooting them.”
After focusing even more on free-throw shooting in practice following the loss, Michigan had the opportunity to show improvement and gain confidence from the line in a low-pressure game against Eastern Michigan the following week. But the Wolverines failed to capitalize even then. Despite a victory, they shot just 8-for-22 from the charity stripe.
Michigan had one more opportunity to make strides from the line before facing another challenge in Syracuse. Against Morgan State on Sunday, the Wolverines shook off two lackluster free-throw shooting performances and made 17 of their 23 free-throw attempts in a 32 point win.
“Some of our shooters are really good shooters, and I think that they just have to settle down and get to the free throw line with some confidence,” Barnes Arico said after the game. “Today we were able to do that and it was much, much better.”
More importantly, Michigan was most efficient from the line when the game was close. The Wolverines led by only eight at halftime, and trailed for a good chunk of it. When the shots weren’t falling — converting less than half of their shots in the first half — they capitalized at the free-throw line, making 12-of-15.
Sophomore forward Naz Hillmon and senior guard Akienreh Johnson were key in this improvement. Hillmon goes to the line more than any other Michigan player, and while typically a strong free-throw shooter — shooting 74 percent from the line this season — she missed five against Notre Dame and her only two against Eastern Michigan. Sunday, she didn’t miss one. Johnson has been one of the Wolverines’ weaker shooters from the line, but made more than any other player against Morgan State.
One better game by no means guarantees that the problem is fixed. Michigan made over 80 percent of its free throws in its game prior to the loss to the Fighting Irish, and proceeded to sink right back down to below 60 percent. But after the extreme lows of the games against Notre Dame and Eastern Michigan, Sunday’s performance at the line gave the Wolverines the confidence they will need to beat stronger opponents.
“We take a lot of pride in (free throws) now because we realize that those can actually win and lose games,” Johnson said.