The No. 9 Michigan women’s basketball team’s defense has been its anchor. In close games, the Wolverine defense has come up big to seal the deal.
Michigan’s defense has allowed 60.2 points per game and held opponents to just 38.3% shooting from the field. Its opponents’ poor scoring efficiency has — in large part — been due to the Wolverines’ ability to lock down the paint, especially against star players in the frontcourt.
“Our identity is in our defense right now,” senior guard Danielle Rauch said after Michigan beat Indiana on Jan. 31. “Our offense will come based on how we perform on defense.”
In meetings against ranked opponents like Maryland, Iowa and Baylor, the Wolverines held each team’s star forward below their season average. Michigan shut down Maryland’s Angel Reese and Iowa’s Monika Czinano, holding each to nine and 13 points, respectively. Baylor’s NaLyssa Smith — the potential number one pick in the WNBA draft — was also kept in check, scoring just 21 total points in the overtime thriller.
Michigan kept what are arguably the three best offensive forwards it’ll face to relatively modest stat lines. To no surprise, the Wolverines won each of those games.
“(Michigan) has a great defense where they suck in,” Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant said after the Spartans beat the Wolverines last Thursday. “Every time the ball gets in the paint, everybody kind of collapses.”
And this defensive scheme has been effective, especially in regard to protecting the interior.
Nevertheless, these defensive performances haven’t translated against opponents’ star guards. Unlike their counterparts in the frontcourt, ball-dominant guards have found success against Michigan’s otherwise staunch defense.
In their past three games, the Wolverines have faced off against top-tier guards. And each guard has proceeded to leave their mark on the game.
Two Sundays ago, it was Iowa’s Caitlin Clark. Clark torched Michigan on her way to a career-high 46 points, with 27 coming in the fourth quarter. While the Wolverines managed to escape with a win, Clark certainly made things interesting.
“We play (Iowa) again, and somehow we have to figure out a way to not let her get the ball at all,” senior forward Naz Hillmon said after Michigan beat Iowa. “That’ll be our challenge next time.”
In East Lansing on Feb. 10, it was Michigan State guard Nia Clouden getting things done against Michigan. The Wolverine defense was fairly effective in the matchup against the Spartans, but Clouden poured in 20 of Michigan State’s 63 total points — snatching a win in a game that could’ve gone either way.
With the Wolverines leading by three at halftime, Clouden’s third quarter was decisive in Michigan’s downfall. Clouden scored 13 points while shooting 5-for-6 from the field in the third frame to push the Spartans to a win.
“(Clouden’s) been a special player for them,” Barnes Arico said after the Wolverines fell to Michigan State. “And she’s a dynamic scorer.”
And in Evanston on Sunday night, it was guard Veronica Burton who led Northwestern’s upset over Michigan. Burton didn’t do it in the traditional way — shooting just 2-for-13 from the field — but still managed to exploit the Wolverine defense in other ways.
Burton picked apart Michigan’s defense with her pinpoint passes, racking up a season-high 13 assists. Burton also succeeded at luring the Wolverines into fouling, leading to 10 free throw attempts. And Michigan — which is usually effective at keeping opponents off the glass — allowed the 5-foot-9 Burton to pull in eight rebounds.
It was Burton’s foul-drawing ability that ultimately won the game for the Wildcats. With seconds left in the second overtime period, she drew a foul on senior guard Amy Dilk. Burton proceeded to hit both free throws and seal the win for Northwestern.
Clark, Clouden and Burton all managed to succeed against the Wolverines. Each guard made big plays, and Michigan couldn’t stop them. While the Wolverines managed to fend off Iowa, they fell to both Michigan State and Northwestern.
“Individually, we’re all not the best defenders in the world,” Rauch said. “But, when we’re gapping for each other and we’re closing out hard and rotating, that’s when we’re at our best.”
What has been an airtight defense on the interior — limiting opponents’ star forwards and minimizing points in the paint — hasn’t translated to the perimeter.
Allowing elite guards to excel on the offensive end can’t become a habit. If it does, Michigan could lose even more ground in the battle for tournament seeding and even see an early exit come March.