Charging towards the basket, fifth-year senior forward Akienreh Johnson bodied an Illinois defender with her left shoulder and lifted the ball up to the rim. As the ball trickled into the hoop, Johnson crossed her arms in relief and headed towards the line — a familiar image for the Wolverines.
Michigan struggled offensively against the Fighting Illini early on, a game the Wolverines won, 70-50. With the absence of junior wing Leigha Brown, Michigan needed to be adept from the line to make up for her typical 20-point contribution. Whether it was missed 3-pointers or lost contested layups, the Wolverines made up for a sluggish first half by scoring free throws.
In its most recent game against Nebraska, Michigan struggled to convert from the line, going 54.2%. Johnson was the exception and went 3-for-4, scoring two decisive free throws in the final moments. Junior forward Naz Hillmon and junior guard Amy Dilk, typically high performers, brought the team average down, going 5-for-10 and 4-for-8 from the line, respectively.
“We saw that the other night in the Nebraska game,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “We were able to squeak that one out, but we had missed a ton of free throws that day. That’s something that we really have talked about the last couple days.”
The Wolverines seemed to learn their lesson, going 72.7% from the line against Illinois. Johnson was a key component to this improved performance, going 4-for-4 until the fourth quarter when she missed three free throws. Whether the ball went in or not, her confidence and aggression to drive at the opposition’s defense led to an abundance of opportunities for Michigan.
“Free throws win games,” Johnson said. “You can be up ten, down ten depending on just making free throws. You can win a game off of one free throw. Being a high Division I team, it’s very important to be able to knock down free throws and close games.”
Unlike in the Nebraska game, Johnson’s teammates’ performances from the free throw was a major factor in the win. In the final moments of the first quarter, Hillmon, bodied by two defenders and unable to see the basket through their hands, threw up the ball high over the glass and earned a free throw. She went 6-for-9 from the line against the Illini, becoming Michigan’s fifth all-time free throw scorer.
The chance for Hillmon, Johnson and Dilk to score four or five points from the line will be critical while the team awaits the return of Leigha Brown. Dilk had the best free throw percentage of the night out of the starting five, going 4-for-4. Especially on a day when the team is missing their shots, being aggressive in the paint leads to more scoring chances for the entire team.
“When you’re in a slump of shooting, anytime you can get a second chance offensive rebound and get more shots, that helps,” senior forward Hailey Brown said. “Being able to draw fouls and also just moving the ball and getting good looks.”
The beginning of the Wolverine’s season was characterized by blowouts, but as they face stronger competitors and final game scores get closer, they’ll need to hone every element of their game — free throws included.
Michigan continued to draw fouls late in the game, giving it the opportunity to take advantage of the bonus and close the game out. Freshman forward Whitney Sollom, Dilk and Hillmon took advantage of the benefit from the line, making six out of 10 shots in the fourth quarter.
After a Nebraska game that had much of the team holding their breath until the final whistle, Michigan was able to fight their way to the line and exhale, knowing they could knock down their shots.