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The Michigan women’s basketball team’s offense comes and goes in waves of triumph and tribulation. In the team’s lone loss of the season against Ohio State, junior forward Naz Hillmon scored a record breaking 50 points and shot 67% from the field. The rest of the offense’s production floundered in the loss, shooting just 43%.

With Hillmon’s ability to mow down opposing defenses on a nightly basis, it is easy to say this team’s identity lives and dies with its offensive play in the paint. 

But it’s identity is really defined on the other side of the court. 

Games are not ultimately won with stellar 3-point shooting or unstoppable offensive production in the paint. Rather, they are won on the defensive end. All you have to do to see the Wolverine’s defense-oriented nature is look at the difference between their two most recent games against Ohio State and Purdue. Twenty-one days apart, these two games show exactly what it takes for Michigan to succeed: Regardless of offensive production, a consistent defensive attack proves essential.

The difference in those two games was a more consistent defensive effort. A rare poor defensive performance against the Buckeyes proved futile while the latter contest against the Boilermakers resulted in a win. Despite lacking a strong offensive night against Purdue after coming off a long hiatus, Michigan’s defense proved to be the difference maker. 

“The one thing we really held onto was our defense in the first quarter,” Hillmon said after the game against the Boilermakers. “We felt like that was one thing that was clicking for us. That gave us a little bit of hope.”

Added fifth-year senior guard Akienreh Johnson: “The way our team plays defense ignites our offense. The more defensive stops we can get the more confidence we can get on the offensive end.”

Through its first 12 games, Michigan ranks near the top in the Big Ten in all major defensive categories. It has held opposing offenses to a meager 59.2 points per game, ranking third in the Big Ten. The Wolverines also lead the Big Ten in opposing field goal percentage, 36.2%, and rank second in 3-point defense, limiting opponents to 25.1% shooting.  

In its limited practice time before its game on Thursday, Michigan focused on defense. The Wolverines practiced all of their defensive sets, constantly switching between man and zone defense, which helped them hone in on different aspects of each player’s individual defensive skills while helping refine the team’s chemistry. 

As the cornerstone of Michigan’s defense, Johnson is tasked with matching up against every opposing team’s most lethal offensive threat on a nightly basis. In a victory over Northwestern, Johnson helped lockdown two of the Big Ten’s best offensive players, Lindsey Pulliam and Veronica Burton, limiting each to 13 and seven points, respectively. On Thursday, Johnson’s defense held Purdue’s top scorer, Kayana Traylor, to 15 points on 6-for-15 shooting. 

“That’s my job to try and limit the other team’s best player and top scorer,” Johnson said. “I want to make sure if (the other team’s leading scorer) is averaging 20 points and seven assists, my mission is to take away at least half so it’s easier for us to be successful.”

The coaching staff utilizes special drills in practice for Johnson to help develop her defensive skills. In practice, Johnson guards graduate assistant Harry Rafferty and video coordinator Dan Dardarian to practice defending players with different skill sets. Dardarian mimics a scrappier, speedy guard while Rafferty plays the part of a bigger guard. Johnson gets the best of both worlds. 

“I take a lot of pride in my defense,” Johnson said. “I’m really good at reading eyes and reading bodies, particularly when they want to get over screens.”

Johnson’s defense hasn’t been something that’s come about overnight, but Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico trusts her as a veteran to be able to consistently lock down on the defensive end. 

Besides Johnson’s ability to limit opponents’ shots, the Wolverines defense hinges on their rebounding. Michigan leads the Big Ten in defensive rebounding, averaging 30.3 boards per game. Led by Johnson with seven defensive rebounds, the Wolverines totaled 24 defensive rebounds while allowing just one offensive rebound by Purdue. This one offensive rebound only allowed the Boilermakers to score two second chance points. 

Michigan’s offense has proven itself to be more than capable of shouldering the load on a given night. Without a strong defensive presence, though, offense can only carry the Wolverines so far. Continuing to out-rebound and stifle opposing team’s offensive weapons is Michigan’s best chance of continuing its historic start to this season.