The No. 14 Michigan women's basketball team has relied heavily on late 3-pointers, but will its luck run out? Lila Turner/Daily. Buy this photo.

The final minutes of the No. 14 Michigan women’s basketball team’s most recent games have followed the exact same formula:

Stay within striking distance. Five minutes left, Leigha Brown finds an open shooter. Shoot, swish, momentum swung. 

In three out of the team’s last four matches, the contests have remained fairly close, anyone’s for the taking, until there were less than five minutes left. Then, that formula comes into play: A cross-court pass from fifth-year wing Leigha Brown finds a shooter — typically senior guard Maddie Nolan or sophomore guard Laila Phelia — who hits the 3-point shot from the corner, swinging the momentum that finally allows the Wolverines to pull away for the win.

It happened against South Florida, when Brown found Nolan for three straight 3-pointers to take the final lead. It happened the following night against then-No. 21 Baylor, and it happened Sunday against Northwestern, when the team used a late 16-7 run to close out the game.

“After hitting one of those big threes, that just brings everyone’s momentum up,” Phelia said after the win over Northwestern. “… When Leigha hit Maddie for that clutch three, I felt like that was just sealing this game off.”

Michigan has been living by the 3-pointer, relying on the deep shot to close out games and stay undefeated through its first nine contests. 

But that success from deep often doesn’t come until late in games, when the Wolverines need it to survive. In the first halves of Michigan’s four most recent matchups, the team has shot a meager 16.7% from outside the perimeter; by contrast, in the second halves of those games, it has shot 50% from beyond the arc.

So what happens if that shot doesn’t start to fall at the end of a close game? Will the Wolverines then die by the same shot selection that has been keeping them afloat?

Thankfully for Michigan, that’s a question it hasn’t had to answer yet. But it is a situation that’s inevitable in a sport defined by hot and cold streaks.

Before the season even started, Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico claimed that her team was going to shoot a lot of 3-pointers, that the team was going to utilize the outside shot more than in previous seasons.

“This year, way different than last year, we’re gonna shoot the basketball,” Barnes Arico said on Oct. 12 at Big Ten Media Days. 

And so far, the Wolverines have followed suit. They’ve shot 24 more 3-pointers through their first nine games this year than over the same stretch last year. But the team is only making those shots at a rate 3% higher than that stretch last year, and often not until the final minutes. While those contests present a relatively small sample size, there’s also cause for some concern. 

Because if Michigan didn’t get hot late in games, it could easily have three losses rather than its current unblemished record. 

“We did have some daggers in the second half,” Barnes Arico said after the win against Northwestern. “Laila was on fire and Maddie made a big one and (sophomore guard Greta Kampschroeder) made a couple as well. And I thought, you know, those are killers. So I was really happy that we were able to make a bunch of those, especially late in the game.”

Barnes Arico maintains that the consistent deep ball will come with time. And it makes sense. For a Michigan team that hasn’t had to rely on 3-point shooting to carry it to victory in recent seasons, it’s a relatively new style of play. And the Wolverines have shown signs of promise.

Phelia is shooting 21% higher from beyond the arc this year than last year, and Kampscrhoeder has shown flashes of the brilliance from downtown that she exhibited at Oregon State last year. Nolan, on the other hand, hasn’t yet reached the 41% mark from deep that she displayed last year, but she’s still been the driving force sinking the late-game 3-pointers that carry Michigan to victory.

While there are a lot of unknowns, there’s also an undeniable fact: In close games, Michigan has put itself in a position to live — and die — by the 3-pointer. 

And through the season’s first nine games, the 3-pointer has been the Wolverines’ lifeline.