The Wolverines were in a familiar situation.
Midway through the fourth quarter of its Thursday matchup against Syracuse, the game seemed to be slipping away from Michigan — just as it had in the Nov. 23 loss to Notre Dame.
Sophomore forward Naz Hillmon forced a turnover and drew a foul on a converted layup in transition early in the fourth quarter to cut the Syracuse lead to four, and it looked as though the momentum had shifted to the Wolverines. But Hillmon missed the free throw, and the Orange made 3-pointers on their next two possessions. Suddenly, Michigan trailed by 10 — its largest deficit of the game.
Just as they had against the Fighting Irish, the Wolverines got anxious, leading to turnovers and missed shots. In that game, Michigan made just one field goal and turned the ball over six times over the first 6:30 of the fourth quarter, during which Notre Dame went on a 12-3 run. Thursday, the Wolverines missed all three of their attempted field goals and committed two turnovers over the two-minute stretch after Syracuse extended the lead to 10. The Orange had the game firmly in hand.
Against the Fighting Irish, Michigan did little to adjust. It continued to sit back in a zone, and Notre Dame continued to break it. The Wolverines looked demoralized as the Fighting Irish continued to score with ease.
“We couldn’t get a defensive stop or consecutive defensive stops,” said junior forward Hailey Brown after the loss. “When you’re not making shots, even though you’re getting the right shots, if you’re not getting stops it’s hard to win that way.”
Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico and the players showed Thursday that they had learned their lesson. With just under six minutes left in the game, the Wolverines unveiled a stifling full-court press. They had shown this look from time to time throughout their past few games — even for a few possessions in the first half against Syracuse — but they had never looked as energized in the formation as they had down the stretch of Thursday’s game.
Michigan’s press forced six turnovers, and the Wolverines finished the quarter on a 14-5 run to force overtime. Michigan continued to press in overtime and forced five Orange turnovers, leading to an 84-76 win.
This defensive switch was the clear turning point in the game, but the Wolverines would not have been able to consistently press without taking care of the ball. In the loss to the Fighting Irish, Michigan had seven turnovers in the fourth quarter. The Wolverines were constantly playing in transition, so they couldn’t get set in a full-court press even if they wanted to. Since that game, they have worked hard to improve their ball security.
“We have a bunch of practice guys that come in every day and we have been doing drill after drill of high pressure, high pressure, high pressure,” Barnes Arico said. “People double-teaming you. Six players against five of us, putting us in uneven numbers. Four of us against three. Just trying to simulate facing long, pressure-type teams.”
Against Syracuse, the Wolverines only turned the ball over twice in the 10 minutes after they began to press. As Michigan began to come back, the Orange switched to a full-court press of their own, but the Wolverines didn’t get flustered. Sophomore point guard Amy Dilk never tried to force the ball up the court on her own. She made smart, quick passes to avoid traps and get the ball past half court with relative ease.
“We had four (turnovers) in the second half against a team that picks up and pressures the way that they do,” Barnes Arico said. “I thought Amy Dilk was phenomenal. When you have to go against pressure 94 feet for 40 minutes, that’s pretty tough to do. She handled it exceptionally well.”
The loss to Notre Dame was a clear wake-up call for the Wolverines, and they showed what they learned from it in a similar game against Syracuse.