Nervous about her team’s first-round matchup against the nation’s leader in 3-point field goal attempts, Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico knew she had to dig deep to formulate a plan to stop Florida Gulf Coast’s lethal shooting attack.
Barnes Arico found what she was looking for in her practice plans from her time coaching at St. John’s, when she faced a similar 3-point-happy style opponent in Villanova. The Wolverines mimicked these practices to prepare their defense in the week leading up to Sunday’s game.
The narrative was clear coming into the game: The nation’s leading 3-point shooting team versus a team that has struggled to score anywhere outside the paint. Michigan believed offensively there was no way they could keep up with the Eagles’ 3-point shot volume or accuracy.
But that’s just what they did.
In a surprising rout of the Eagles, the Wolverines flipped the narrative and were the superior 3-point team both offensively and defensively. It was a result of the way Michigan took advantage of the extra practice time they had prior to this matchup.
“I think it really helped us work defensively on their actions,” Barnes Arico said. “Our players were absolutely locked-in. Our bench was calling out their actions and helping the players on the floor. When do you see that? Everybody in our program was really engaged on their stuff.”
Coming into the game, Florida Gulf Coast averaged 35.75 3-point attempts per game and shot a respectable 33.33% on those long-range shots. This presented a matchup nightmare for the Wolverines, who have been cold offensively for the second half of the season and consistently struggled to sink the three.
Defense has been one of the Wolverines’ calling cards all season long, but Michigan’s shooting slump has been its biggest problem area. But it only took one possession for Michigan to come out of their shooting slump. The trigger-happy Eagles drained a three on their first possession of the game, but senior forward Hailey Brown immediately countered with one of her own.
Michigan’s game plan wasn’t to match Florida Gulf Coast’s 3-point shooting, but with one stroke, Hailey Brown gave her team the confidence they needed to get out of their shooting slump. Brown went 2-for-2 from 3-point range to start the game. Despite missing the rest of her attempts, Brown showed her team they didn’t have to shy away from taking an open shoot.
Much has been made of Michigan’s shooting woes during the second half of the season. But on Sunday, the Wolverines were finally able to shake off the shooting rust that they’ve been trying to shed for weeks.
“That’s been the question for the last month, ‘Why are we not shooting the ball well?’, ‘when is our shooting slump gonna end?’ All those questions,” Barnes Arico said. “I kept saying ‘we have great shooters.’ Part of it is shot selection and making the extra pass. We talked to our team about … getting the great shot instead of the good shot.”
Michigan more than dispatched its earlier woes, shooting 40% from three on the night. It was the Wolverine’s best 3-point shooting night since the beginning of January. Aided by sharp passing and defensive attention on junior forward Naz Hillmon, the Wolverines were consistently open on the perimeter. Michigan employed a balanced scoring attack that saw four different players each make two 3-pointers.
Starting in place of junior point guard Amy Dilk, junior guard Danielle Rauch stepped up in a major way, going 2-for-4 from beyond the arc. In the middle of the fourth quarter, as Michigan was pulling away, Rauch hit two threes in a row to extend the Wolverines lead to 16, putting the Eagles away once and for all. Each shot was the beneficiary of great passes from the inside from Hillmon and junior wing Leigha Brown.
Michigan’s 3-point defense was equally as impressive and surprising, as its 3-point offensive performance. Excellent screen defense led by graduate guard Akienreh Johnson forced the Eagles into an off-shooting night and Michigan’s defense held them to 9-for-29 from behind the arc.
“We felt really confident that if we can hold them to under 10 (3-point field goals), we would be in really good shape,” Barnes Arico said.
Added Leigha Brown: “(Our mindset was to) run them off the line and then gapping off our person and be able to get back and closeout (on the perimeter). In doing that we gave up some easy two’s because we didn’t want to give up the three.”
Barnes Arico’s plan worked to perfection. At the end of the day, all she could do was raise both her hands triumphantly, smiling as she explained just how her team was able to flip the script and beat a team at its own game.
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