Despite shutting down Pulliam, stagnant offense costs Michigan

Thursday, February 13, 2020 - 11:21pm

Senior guard Akienreh Johnson slowed down Northwestern star guard Lindsey Pulliam, but it was still not enough for a win.

Senior guard Akienreh Johnson slowed down Northwestern star guard Lindsey Pulliam, but it was still not enough for a win. Buy this photo
Miles Macklin/Daily

Lindsey Pulliam is nothing short of explosive.

Entering Thursday night’s game, the Northwestern guard was second in the Big Ten in scoring, averaging 19.7 points per game. In the Michigan women’s basketball team’s Jan. 30 loss to the Wildcats, Pulliam scored a season-high 32 points, 22 of which came in the second half. She almost single-handedly delivered the Wolverines an eight-point loss.

Over the two weeks since that loss, Michigan’s biggest challenge in preparing for the rematch was how to contain her. Without Pulliam’s dominance, the Wolverines felt that they could pull off their biggest win of the season.

From the start of Thursday’s game, the gameplan for defending Pulliam was clear: Don’t let her touch the ball. When she gets the ball, she doesn’t need much room to score — she can knock down fadeaway jumpers from almost anywhere on the court. In the loss two weeks ago, Michigan rarely let her get much separation, but she didn’t need it. She constantly knocked down improbable fadeaways to prevent the Wolverines from cutting into Northwestern’s second-half lead.

Senior guard Akienreh Johnson, tasked with defending Pulliam on Thursday, was all over the place to keep the ball out of her hands. Any time Pulliam came to the top of the arc to receive a hand-off from the point guard, Johnson did whatever she could to get a hand in and deflect the ball away. Many of the Wildcats’ possessions ended without Pulliam getting a touch.

“I studied her style of play for I think a week before this game … and one thing that I realized is when she gets the ball, either she’s gonna score it or she’s gonna draw a foul,” Johnson said. “So my intention this entire game, I didn’t care if I scored one single point, I was just keeping the ball out of her hands and making sure she wasn’t scoring.”

When she did get the ball, Michigan sent a double-team at her, often a forward. A second, bigger player coming at Pulliam threw her off just enough that she couldn’t knock down that fadeaway. She finished with just four points — none in the second half — on 1-for-10 shooting.

“I thought Akienreh Johnson did a fabulous job on (Pulliam),” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “I thought she was outstanding on her and really frustrated her early to the point that she kind of went away.”

But while Johnson shut down Pulliam, Northwestern still won, 66-60, because the Wolverines’ offense struggled to generate anything in the second half. After shooting over 50 percent in the first half, Michigan shot under 35 percent in the second. It turned the ball over 12 times in the second half, compared to just six in the first. The Wolverines couldn’t overcome the loss of sophomore forward Naz Hillmon — their leading scorer — who went down with an upper body injury three minutes into the game.

Michigan held it together without her early on, in large part to Johnson’s six first quarter points, and she returned early in the second. But midway through the third quarter, Hillmon came out after aggravating her injury and didn’t return. 

And her second absence took a toll on the Wolverines’ offense.

Playing the final four minutes of the third quarter without her, Michigan committed four turnovers and the Wildcats went on a 15-6 run to end the quarter, turning a 3-point Wolverines lead into a 6-point deficit.

In the fourth quarter, Michigan clawed its way back, tying the game with three minutes to go, but it was the Wolverines’ defense that got them back in it — they forced Northwestern to shoot 25 percent in the quarter. 

Michigan’s offense couldn’t get anything going despite its strong defense. The Wolverines often had to take low-percentage shots, and when they did score, it came late in the shot clock. After tying the game, they didn’t score again, and only scored 11 total points in the quarter.

“We got stagnant a little bit at times because (Hillmon) dominates the ball so much,” Barnes Arico said. “(Freshman center Izabel Varejão) tried to do that but she’s also a freshman trying to do what Naz has done and I think she had really good spurts, but she didn’t sustain the level that Naz can play at.”

Johnson did her part on Pulliam, but an unfortunate injury and a sluggish offense cost Michigan a game it easily could have won.