It’s not often that a player shoots 7-for-7 in the first half and the opposing coach goes into the locker room happy.
But even though Pittsburgh forward Yacine Diop did just that, Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico was pleased with the way the Wolverines defended her on Thursday.
Diop may have scored 15 points at the break, but Michigan’s suffocating three-quarter court press forced the Panther forward into committing five turnovers in that time. By the end of the night, the Wolverines had pressured Pittsburgh into making 24 turnovers, as defense powered Michigan to the 82-45 win.
Knowing Pittburgh’s height was going to be an issue, Barnes Arico set up a press scheme to prevent the Panthers’ post players from getting the ball early in possessions.
The Wolverines had two defenders on Pittburgh’s ball handlers in the backcourt, trying to force half-court traps in the corner or risky cross-court passes.
Senior guard Madison Ristovski was at the head of the press early in the contest. She was constantly sliding between the Panthers’ guards, trying to stop them from getting any open passing lanes or outside shots.
“(Ristovski) started the game focused and locked in,” Barnes Arico said. “She scored for us early. She defended for us early. She’s playing at another level, and we need her to because of her experience. I thought Madison was absolutely terrific for us tonight. “
Ristovski played a huge role setting up the defense in the first quarter, but it’s junior guard Siera Thompson who will haunt the memory of Pittsburgh ball handlers. Thompson picked up a team-high five steals and pressured the Panthers into making countless errors throughout the contest.
The Wolverine defense really got up to speed when freshman guards Boogie Brozoski and Nicole Munger entered the game after the under-five timeout in the first quarter.
Barnes Arico has praised the freshman duo’s energy all season long, and while there were a few jitters in their early minutes, they carried the Michigan defense all night.
“I think my role was to pressure the ball and make the ball handler uncomfortable to force turnovers on the wing,” Brozoski said. “By doing that, we were able to force steals and easy baskets on the offensive ends. So my role is to be the scrappy player, and do the little intangible things that make things happen on the offensive end.”
The Wolverines earned 11 steals Thursday and forced Pittsburgh to commit turnovers on 34 percent of its possessions.
But whenever the Panthers got through the Michigan backcourt, the Wolverines were ready to slide in and make an aggressive move in front of the basket. Michigan drew five charges, with sophomore forward Jillian Dunston acting as the roadblock between Pittsburgh players and the basket.
While Dunston has led the Wolverines in rebounding for most of the season, junior guard Danielle Williams worked her way inside and grabbed a team high 10 rebounds Thursday. The guard made up for her lack of height by outhustling and out-jumping Pitt’s big lineup.
Williams has come off the bench to spark the Michigan defense throughout her career, and she did it again against the Panthers.
“Out of anyone, (Williams is) not a scorer,” Barnes Arico said. “But the charges that she took tonight, and the tips and deflections that she took, and to be a 5-(foot)-8 kid and get 10 rebounds against a big team just shows you her toughness and her unselfishness.”
The Wolverines baffled Pittsburgh all night on the defensive end, and will hope whatever scheme they throw at Princeton on Sunday will be similarly effective. The Tigers’ offense, which averages 79 points per game, may finally be an even match for a Michigan defense that answered the challenge Thursday.
“Our defensive energy and our style of play and our pressure defense is creating turnovers and easy shots for us and open shots for us,” Barnes Arico said. “Part of the reason why we’re scoring 80 points is because of the kind of defense we’re playing.”