Brendan Roose: Battle-tested Wolverines face toughest bout of adversity yet

Monday, February 17, 2020 - 8:06pm

The Michigan women's basketball team must try to survive with eight fully healthy players.

The Michigan women's basketball team must try to survive with eight fully healthy players. Buy this photo
Miles Macklin/Daily

The Michigan women’s basketball team is no stranger to adversity, especially when it comes to injuries. 

First, senior forward Kayla Robbins tore her ACL Jan. 19. Then her replacement, sophomore guard Danielle Rauch, injured her hand before the Feb. 6 game against Purdue. For a Wolverines team that started the season with only 11 players on the roster, losing a starter and sixth player spelled doom. 

Then came the apocalypse. 

In the first quarter of Thursday’s game against No. 19 Northwestern, where a win would have put Michigan in excellent position to make the NCAA Tournament, sophomore forward Naz Hillmon stayed down after diving for a loose ball and colliding with a Wildcat defender. 

A silent Crisler Center crowd held its breath as the Wolverines’ leading scorer walked to the bench, visibly experiencing pain near her right shoulder. With Hillmon limited to just 15 minutes, Michigan fell, 66-60. 

Still, things could have gone much worse. Strong performances from senior guard Akienreh Johnson, sophomore guard Amy Dilk and junior forward Hailey Brown meant the Wolverines could hang tough until the end, despite sustaining a few more bumps and bruises throughout the game. 

“I could see their fight. They were fighting like crazy,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “(Johnson) was all over the place and selling out. On that last possession before (Johnson) went down, Amy stood in there and took a charge, we didn’t get that call. You could see the way that they were fighting for each other and that’s what we ask for them.”

That fight disappeared at the Rutgers Athletic Center Sunday, where Michigan played its worst game all season in a 62-41 loss. The offense looked frozen from start to finish. Passes flew out of bounds. Nearly every shot either hit the rim or the outstretched hand of a Rutgers defender. Hillmon played, but she clearly wasn’t 100 percent, tallying just five points. As a result, the Wolverines had just as many turnovers (15) as made field goals.

This bout of adversity felt nothing like what happened earlier in the season. In the first two games after Rauch’s injury, Michigan squeaked by Purdue at home before beating Minnesota by 25 on the road. Both were quality opponents, too — like the Wolverines, they were still jockeying for spots in the NCAA Tournament. Michigan took an impossible situation and somehow kept playing just as well as it had before. 

After those two games, the Wolverines looked unstoppable. Throughout the season, it had faced what felt like an unbreakable spell of adversity — from turnover problems, to bad losses, to heartbreaking injuries — and still competed with some of the Big Ten’s top teams. Even after Thursday’s loss to Northwestern, it looked like they weren’t completely dead in the water. 

“I just think it’s the culture that’s been created in our program,” Barnes Arico said after that game. “Our kids have been really doing a great job of staying positive and trying to rally around the injured kids.”

Michigan’s season isn’t over. We don’t know much about the seriousness of Hillmon’s injury, and Barnes Arico doesn’t have a timeframe for when she’ll be back to 100 percent. Maybe she’ll be back at full strength on Wednesday and hang 25 on Illinois. Maybe she’ll go to East Lansing on Sunday hungrier than ever and bury the Wolverines’ rival for the second time this year. 

But Sunday, Michigan finally found a problem that culture can’t fix. Make no mistake, its ability to respond to adversity this season has been nothing short of tremendous. Very few teams start the season with just 11 players on the roster. Even fewer would be able to compete after losing two key players to injury. 

None would be able to win after losing a Naz Hillmon.

Brendan Roose can be reached at rooseb@umich.edu or on Twitter @BrendanRoose.