Michigan began the season with a historic 10-0 run, the Wolverines’ longest unbeaten streak in their history. The season gave way to another first just a few days ago as junior forward Naz Hillmon became the first player in program history to win the Big Ten Player of the Year Award.
Simply put, this year’s iteration has the potential to stake its claim as one of the best Michigan women’s basketball teams ever, but the smell of success is dissipating quickly as the Wolverines limped to the finish line, losing three of their last five games.
The two-week pause imposed by the Michigan Athletic Department in late January is the clear dividing line between Michigan’s early season success and their recent struggles. In the Wolverines’ first 11 games, they averaged 81.3 points per game, only tallying one loss. In its seven games since the pause, Michigan has been a mere shadow of their former offensively aggressive selves, averaging 68.7 points per game.
“We were put in a position to really have to battle some tough teams at the end of our season coming off of our pause,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “I think to put that into a good frame of reference like that is important for us, heading into the Big Ten Tournament and heading into the NCAA tournament to challenge ourselves against arguably the best.”
While Michigan has faced the Big Ten’s best teams more recently, the biggest difference between the two versions of the team is its lack of shooting confidence and ineffective ball movement. In blowout losses to Iowa and Maryland, the Wolverines shot a combined 40% from the field.
In order for the team to regain its transcendent nature from the beginning of the season, Michigan must replicate a performance similar to its season-ending win over Northwestern. Facilitators like junior point guard Amy Dilk and fifth-year guard Akienreh Johnson gained their confidence back by having their best games of the season.
Much like Michigan’s two versions, Dilk herself, is either an unselfish player who helps teammates like Hillmon or the offensive aggressor. In order for the Wolverines to reach their ultimate goal of winning a Big Ten Championship, Dilk must learn to balance her two personas.
“If (Dilk) wants to, she could come down and pull every shot if she wanted to,” Hillmon said. “But she finds the hot hand day-in and day-out. Whether that’s me or (junior wing Leigha Brown) or Johnson or (senior forward) Hailey Brown. Sometimes (we) even yell at her to shoot the ball because she’s so unselfish.”
If Michigan hopes to accomplish the daunting task of winning three consecutive games in the Big Ten Tournament, then Wolverines will have to lean on its veteran players, Dilk among them.
Senior forward Hailey Brown, Johnson and Hillmon will be paramount to Michigan’s success. Hillmon’s prolific play makes her impact obvious, but Johnson and Brown’s impact, although not always obvious, cannot be overstated. Johnson is a stabilizing force for the team while Hailey Brown is the team’s most tenured starter.
“(Johnson and Hailey Brown) are handling things composed,” Barnes Arico said. “Nobody freaks out and nobody says, ‘Oh my goodness why is this happening to me?’ If I was looking at a team full of freshmen right now, I think it would make me nervous.”
Hailey Brown’s offensive production doesn’t typically show up in the box score, with her post defense being her calling card this season. However, she leads the team in 3-point shooting, a category that’s success has mirrored that of the team’s.
“Her basketball IQ and her knowledge of the game is off the charts,” Barnes Arico said.
Michigan’s historic start was in large part thanks to Hillmon’s ability to consistently overpower defenses. With her 50-point performance as the pinnacle, she was moved up to the top of every opposing team’s scouting list. Now, every team is mixing up their defensive schemes, packing the paint with double and triple teams, to try and stop Hillmon. Hillmon’s uncanny ability to break through double teams is still a constant, but sufficient production from the supporting cast hasn’t been.
Her teammates struggled initially to compensate for opposing defense’s keying in on her more. Leigha Brown’s scoring has decreased slightly from the beginning of the season, but her confidence has been regained in other areas. Only recording five points in the most recent win over Northwestern, Leigha Brown’s passing abilities were on full display as she dished out a team-high five assists. The duality of Leigha Brown’s game, demanding the ball in crunch time and knowing when to use her quickness to speed up the game, could bring Michigan out of its slump.
“She has great vision. She makes other people around her better,” Barnes Arico said. “She wants the ball when the game is on the line and not every kid is like that.”
The Wolverines’ goal from the beginning of the season was to win a Big Ten Championship. Ten games in, it seemed almost inevitable. In order for the team to right the ship, the veterans must make their presence felt on the court.
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