Michigan bends but doesn't break in 79-64 victory over Oakland

Sunday, December 8, 2019 - 3:40pm

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Emma Mati/Daily

A grueling, late-night victory against one of the country’s most consistent powerhouses can leave a team limping unsuspectingly into a game two days later against a weaker in-state opponent, ripe to be upset.

Instead, Michigan’s momentum from the end of Thursday’s electric victory over Syracuse continued into Sunday as the Wolverines (8-1) muscled their way to a 79-64 win over Oakland (4-4).

The victory wasn’t without its struggles. A high-scoring first quarter ended in a tight 22-21 lead for Michigan, but a strong second quarter gave the team essential breathing room to sustain its lead, coming into half up 40-28.

The Grizzlies narrowed the gap to four points with 2:18 left in the third quarter, going on a 13-4 run over the span of three minutes and missing only one shot.

Just as they did in the second quarter, though, the Wolverines slammed the door shut with offensive rebounds and second-chance points, freezing the heat Oakland built up on the offensive end.

“I think just really making in-game adjustments, that’s the biggest thing coach has challenged us on,” said sophomore guard Amy Dilk. “Being able to recognize how a team is scoring, and then stopping that player or that set from executing.”

Despite the Grizzlies shooting 60 percent from the field in the first quarter and going 3-for-4 from beyond the arc, Michigan kept pace by playing to two of its strengths — one emerging in its most recent matchups, another a season long dominance.

The Wolverines forced seven turnovers in the first quarter, scoring 10 points off Oakland’s mistakes, eventually finishing with 29 points off turnovers. Senior forward Kayla Robbins, who is becoming one of the team’s most impressive defenders, had three steals in the first quarter.

Unlike the previous game, however, Michigan found its success without laying out its press-and-trap defense, instead reading the Grizzlies’ passes from the start. Dilk, senior guard Akienreh Johnson and Robbins all converted easy, full-court runs for layups.

On the offensive glass, nothing could stop the Wolverines, who tallied six offensive rebounds in the first quarter alone, totaling 17 after 40 minutes. Freshman center Izabel Varejão, at one point, put up a layup and missed, but followed it up with a standing offensive rebound and a second-chance layup.

“I think that’s a strength of our team,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “(Johnson), (Robbins) and especially Naz (Hillmon) are just tremendous, tremendous offensive rebounders. So don’t get discouraged on that first shot not falling, but keep tracking it down.”

All told, the Wolverines showed they could bend, but not break, against a streaky offense that could hurt them from beyond the arc. And when they were pushed, they pushed back — going on an eight point run to close out the third quarter.

Even with its overpowering starting five, Michigan needed its bench to spur on the starters who were dealing with their own set of nicks and bruises from the overtime affair on Thursday. +

In the second quarter, freshman guard Maddie Nolan checked in and, after dishing a backward pass to Johnson, was standing alone, unguarded, in the corner. Johnson held onto the ball and took a long three as the shot clock wound down, bouncing off the front of the rim. Nolan anticipated the bounce and was all alone to collect the rebound, split two defenders and finish through contact.

As time wound down in the fourth quarter, junior guard Priscilla Smeenge caught fire and drained two 3-pointers and two layups.

“We were dragging a little bit, and we talked about it this morning, what can we change up if we need a little bit of a spark,” Barnes Arico said. “We talked about maybe putting (Smeenge) at the front of the press. She’s just so athletic. Having her run around a little bit and be annoying, and just give us a little bit of a lift.”

Added Smeenge: “We’ve had a lot of back-to-back games these past couple days, like a lot of people were kind of tired and we had a lot of injuries coming into today’s game and so you never know when you’ve got to be ready when your number’s called. It was really exciting, I mean my teammates did a great job of finding me and having confidence in me to shoot it, so it was really helpful to have their support.”

The Wolverines ultimately avoided a collapse, springing forward and keeping momentum from Thursday’s win.