Move the ball, find the open player. 

That’s the strategy that the Michigan women’s basketball team used in its 76-66 victory over Notre Dame on Thursday night. 

Michigan struggled early on against Notre Dame’s zone defense, which restricted the Wolverines from getting into the paint. The Fighting Irish pressured junior Naz Hillmon down low throughout the game, triple teaming her everytime she found the ball near the basket. With the Wolverines continuing to turn the ball over and Hillmon locked down, Michigan had to battle. 

“The first quarter we were forcing passes that weren’t really there,” fifth-year senior Akienreh Johnson said. “But in the second half we started knocking down outside shots, started to move the ball. The middle was open, the corners were open, and we started to slow the ball.” 

The Wolverines knew they had to make adjustments. The offensive turnaround started with an emphasis on ball movement, as they finished with 17 assists and just 14 turnovers.

Michigan planned to attack Notre Dame in the transition. When junior guard Amy Dilk received the ball, they advanced. With Hillmon drawing attention into the post, Johnson and junior guard Leigha Brown were open on the wings, and Notre Dame struggled to defend. 

As senior forward Hailey Brown began to knock down outside shots, Notre Dame had to adjust. Breaking the zone helped get more opportunities for everyone on the team including Hillmon despite a crowded interior.

“We were able to get out in transition and draw some fouls early,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “Naz drew some fouls and then AK came through with some big shots that really extended the lead. … We knew just try to get stops on defense and try to get stops on the deep end.”

The Wolverines received the ball and immediately passed it. Whether it was to the corner or Hillmon in the paint, they continued to attack and extended their lead during the final quarter.  Michigan’s grit and experience showed as the adjustments made by the coaching staff made the offense more productive. 

Changing Hillmon’s attack proved beneficial as Michigan was still able to keep her involved, feeding her early in transitions or after ball reversals. The Wolverines moved the ball inside then out, getting Hillmon touches in the paint. 

Going 12-for-13 from the line, Hillmon earned a double-double with 20 points and 11 rebounds. Her ability to play through Notre Dame’s zone defense led to opportunities for herself and outside shooters. 

Downhill drives ending in kick outs to Brown and Johnson gave the Wolverines an abundance of wide open shots. With Michigan ahead, it came down to Johnson’s 3-point shot in the fourth quarter that gave the Wolverines the edge over Notre Dame for good, an open look that resulted from the ball movement and passing they emphasized. 

“They (Notre Dame) disrupted us a lot last year as well and we had 28 turnovers last year so much improved this year,” Barnes Arico said. “I thought when we moved the ball inside out and when we got those paint touches, we were really effective getting good shots and good looks.”

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