The defense of the No. 9 Michigan women’s basketball team has been his anchor. In close games, Wolverine’s defense managed to seal the deal.
Michigan’s defense allowed 60.2 points per game and limited opponents to just 38.3 percent shooting from the field. His opponents’ low scoring efficiency is largely down to the Wolverines’ ability to lock 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 our performance in defence.”
In meetings against ranked opponents like Maryland, Iowa, and Baylor, the Wolverines kept each team’s star below their season average. Michigan knocked out Angel Reese of Maryland and Monika Czinano of Iowa, each holding nine and 13 points respectively. Baylor’s NaLyssa Smith — the potential number one pick in the WNBA Draft — was also subdued, scoring just 21 total points in the overtime thriller.
Michigan retained what are arguably the top three offensive forwards it will face with relatively modest stat lines. Unsurprisingly, the Wolverines won each of those games.
“(Michigan) has great defense where they aspire,” Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant said after the Spartans beat the Wolverines last Thursday. “Every time the ball goes into the paint, everyone collapses.”
And this defensive scheme has been effective, especially with regard to the protection of the interior.
Nevertheless, these defensive performances did not translate against the opposition’s star goalkeepers. Unlike their frontcourt counterparts, the ball-dominant guards were successful against Michigan’s otherwise stalwart defense.
In their last three games, the Wolverines have faced top goalkeepers. And each guard left their mark on the game.
Two Sundays ago, it was Caitlin Clark from Iowa. Clark torched Michigan en route to a career-high 46 points, including 27 in the fourth quarter. While the Wolverines managed to escape with a win, Clark certainly made things interesting.
“We’re playing (Iowa) again, and somehow we have to find a way to not let her take the ball at all,” senior forward Naz Hillmon said after Michigan beat Iowa. “That will be our challenge next time.”
At East Lansing on Feb. 10, it was Michigan State guard Nia Clouden who got the ball rolling against Michigan. Wolverine’s defense was quite effective in the game against the Spartans, but Clouden scored 20 of Michigan State’s 63 total points – earning a victory in a game that could have 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 shooting 5-on-6 from the field in third frame to push the Spartans to a win.
“(Clouden) was 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 against Michigan. Burton didn’t do it the traditional way – shooting just 2 of 13 from the field – but still managed to exploit Wolverine’s defense in other ways.
Burton set the Michigan defense apart with his accurate passing, racking up a season-high 13 assists. Burton was also successful in drawing the Wolverines into the fouling, leading to 10 free throw attempts. And Michigan — which is generally good at keeping opponents out of the glass — allowed the 5-foot-9 Burton to pull off eight rebounds.
It was Burton’s tossing ability that ultimately won the game for the Wildcats. With seconds left in the second overtime, she fouled senior guard Amy Dilk. Burton was able to hit both free throws and seal the victory for Northwestern.
Clark, Clouden and Burton all had success against the Wolverines. Each guard made big plays and Michigan couldn’t stop them. While the Wolverines managed to hold off Iowa, they fell to both Michigan State and the Northwest.
“Individually, we’re not all the best defenders in the world,” Rauch said. “But, when we pull away from each other and close hard and spin, that’s when we’re at our best.”
What has been an airtight defense inside – 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 cannot become a habit. If so, Michigan could lose even more ground in the tournament seeding battle and even see an early March exit.