When the Michigan women’s basketball team walked off the court at the Xfinity Center on Monday night in College Park, it was left wondering what had gone wrong. It had allowed a one-point deficit heading into the fourth quarter to balloon into a 14-point loss.
The Wolverines outrebounded No. 9 Maryland and put themselves in a position to win collecting 18 offensive boards compared to just seven for the Terrapins — the eighth-best rebounding team in the nation. Then, the defense collapsed, allowing Maryland to shoot 77 percent from the floor and 75 percent from deep in the final period while giving up its rebounding advantage.
This is no anomaly. Instead, it encapsulates what has been an up and down season for the Wolverines thus far.
“Our defense is definitely a work in progress and that’s something that we are continuing to try and improve, sending (less) people to the free throw line,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “I think the last few games we’ve done a much better job of that, but we have taken notice of that.”
A big reason for Michigan’s defensive struggles, especially late in games, is youth. While youth has long-term advantages, the lack of experience has hurt the Wolverines late in games when trying to hold a narrow lead or close a slim deficit.
“Well they say defense wins championships and we really pride ourselves on that here,” said senior guard Nicole Munger. “… I think we’re just really focused on getting better every single day at defense and getting little things, like extra possessions, through charges, loose balls, rebounds and just really trying to lock into our scouts. We’ve shown the ability (against) like Missouri, Maryland for the first half, of being able to really shut down opponents, we just need to be able to out a full 40 minutes together.”
That youth has also led to struggles in hostile road environments. Michigan has won just four times in its 10 games away from the Crisler Center, and without any notable road wins, the Wolverines will have a hard time making the NCAA Tournament.
“I think that we just need to lock in and, like I said, do everything a little bit better (on the road),” Munger said. “You’re not going to have your refs or, like I said, your crowd, but that’s why you got to be a little bit better at every single thing.”
Thus far, Michigan has faced five ranked teams, four of them on the road. To little surprise, the Wolverines have lost all four of those games. But, for Barnes Arico, those losses have a silver lining — they provide a learning experience that will help the young players gain the skills they need to succeed away from Ann Arbor. That starts in Iowa City with a contest against the 22nd-ranked Hawkeyes on Thursday.
If it can learn from its previous road contests, Michigan is capable of snatching a few key road wins down the final stretch.
“I think our schedule, even before Big Ten play, has been incredibly tough,” Barnes Arico said. “We’ve played against some of the best teams in the country. Whether that’s Texas or NC State, who I think is the only undefeated team left, and all of those games have been on the road. And then to head into Big Ten play and now have four of our first six on the road has really been challenging.
“But we keep trying to put a positive spin on it, that it is going to prepare us for February, that it is going to prepare us for March and Big Ten play and the Big Ten Tournament when we will have to be at a neutral court.”