By JERAMY STOVER, Sports Editor
“Sweeney! Sweeney! Sweeney!”
That chant echoed into the hallway at the Northwest Activities Center Saturday afternoon. It came from the locker room of a winning team.
But the chant wasn’t for a star player who led her team to victory. Or for someone who hit the game winning shot.
It was for an interim head coach, who in just four games has instilled a very crucial and yet sometimes undervalued skill: confidence.
Jordan Sweeney has taken the reins of the University of Michigan-Dearborn women’s basketball team. It appears he will be the interim coach for the remainder of the season, a role he took on Jan. 13, the same day the team traveled to Madonna for a game.
“I didn’t know many of the girls, I don’t know what they’re doing for their offensive scheme, or their defensive scheme, or their philosophy or anything like that,” Sweeney said.
He didn’t know the Wolverines when he first took the job, but he knows a lot more about them now. And he played a part in that.
When you’re still searching for your first win and 17 games have been played in the season, frustration is an understatement. Confidence is low, and belief is running on fumes.
But Sweeney changed that, and more. Even in the first game you noticed it – just not where it would be obvious.
When you looked at the scoreboard things looked familiar. The Wolverines trailed Madonna by more than 20 and the two teams’ scores weren’t getting any closer.
But watching the team play, you noticed a different hop in their step. And when the box score was released you realized the difference.
UM-Dearborn shot 38.6 percent from the field, just .03 shy of a season high. The Wolverines also recorded 14 assists as a team, which was at the time a season high.
Then after a thrashing from an Indiana Tech team that shot the ball like it was their major, the Wolverines took on the Racers from Northwestern Ohio. And they took another step forward.
UM-Dearborn was down eight at halftime and you couldn’t help but think, “when is the collapse going to happen?” But it never came. Instead the Wolverines rallied back and forced overtime after Megan Swick knocked down a three pointer with 18 seconds left.
The Wolverines would go on to lose by four points after a couple costly turnovers. But even though it was another “L” to add to the wrong side of the record, the game had an impact.
“We played the best we played all season; we worked hard and we played with each other the best we have and we had fun out there,” Swick said after the game.
Shooting-wise, it was the best they played all season. They shot 42.6 percent from the field, and 45 percent from three point range, both season highs.
Then on Saturday, the schedule finally looked different. The team had taken the step forward they had been waiting for since the season began. And the search was finally over.
The Wolverines stepped onto the court with the Marygrove Mustangs, and completely annihilated them on their own court.
It was now known to everyone; the Sweeney Effect was in full force. And there are numbers to prove it.
Before Sweeney took over, the team shot 27.5 percent from the field, 21.6 percent from three point range and averaged 49.5 points per game.
Since Sweeney has taken over, the team has shot 37.3 percent from the field, 26.5 percent from three point range, and is averaging 58.7 points per game.
But it’s not just offensively that the Wolverines are thriving under new leadership; they have improved on the defensive side as well.
Opponents are shooting four percent worse from the field and averaging nine less points per game. Before Sweeney, the Wolverines got out-rebounded by an average of nearly 12 rebounds per game. With their new coach, UM-Dearborn is averaging more rebounds per game than their opponents.
And no, it is not because of a weak schedule. Three of the four teams the Wolverines have played under Sweeney are in the top half of the conference standings. These improvements are real.
But when you talk to the Wolverines, it’s not the stat sheet they talk about that is the biggest improvement in the past four games. It’s the confidence their new coach has given them.
“He gave us our confidence back, he came in a time when we were very low confidence, and as a coach he knew that you have to build your team up so he took the confidence and believed in us,” Olivia Hauser said.
“I truly feel that everyone is just so confident in themselves and confident in each other. Our team chemistry has improved tremendously,” Marisa Sauve added.
While the confidence has greatly improved, so has the play of the team. They’re moving the ball better, playing better defensively and choosing to take better shots.
With just eight games left in the season, the odds of making the conference tournament are not in the Wolverines’ favor. But the chances of winning four or five games aren’t just slim and none.
This is a much different team – a much more confident team – than the one that stepped on the court the first 17 times this season. And most importantly, the Wolverines know it too.
“I’m very excited for what’s to come, and we got some good games coming up, so I think you will see a new University of Michigan-Dearborn women’s basketball team,” Hauser said.