Michigan dominates Rutgers, 71-57
The expectations for the Wolverines entering Sunday’s game against Rutgers weren’t all that high.
The Michigan women’s basketball team (13-6 overall, 4-4 Big Ten) had lost three of its last four contests, and Sunday was its first full game without senior forward Kayla Robbins, who tore her ACL a week prior. Even more, it was going up against a Rutgers team (15-4, 5-3) that sat just outside the top 25.
Yet the Wolverines seemed unfazed — even without Robbins. They hit tough shots. They forced turnovers. And they dealt the Scarlet Knights their fourth loss, burying them, 71-57.
“We know and understand that nobody is gonna be Kayla Robbins. Nobody in the country can be Kayla Robbins,” sophomore forward Naz Hillmon said. “We’re not gonna try to be. But somebody needs to take on the little things she did. One person can get a couple more rebounds, get a couple more points, get a couple more steals.”
From the start, the Wolverines’ offense did just that, captained by senior guard Akienreh Johnson. She notched seven points and two rebounds in the first quarter alone, leading Michigan to a 20-13 lead entering the second quarter. Johnson finished the first half with 15 points and three rebounds.
On the other end, Rutgers’ offense was a disaster. A backcourt violation just three seconds after the opening tip set the tone for the Scarlet Knights, who turned the ball over an astounding 15 times in the first half alone.
On top of Rutgers’ sloppy play, a good chunk of its turnovers came thanks to a new-look 2-3 zone from the Wolverines defense. Featuring a three-big lineup — with Hillmon, junior forward Hailey Brown and freshman center Izabel Varejão all down low — the zone caught the Scarlet Knights by surprise and forced them into errors.
“We wanted to get the ball out of their ball handlers’ hands, something that a lot of teams do to us,” Hillmon said. “We wanted to make them as uncomfortable as possible and make other people make decisions. Their two ball handlers create a lot for themselves as well as others. We were really just trying to make somebody else take the shots and handle the ball the way that teams try to pressure us into doing.”
Visibly frustrated, Rutgers’ defense committed a large number of fouls and opened the door for more Wolverines to step up. Sophomore guard Amy Dilk did just that, sinking all five of her first-half free throws. She remained consistent on offense throughout the game, dishing the ball to her teammates for a respectable five assists.
As the game wore on, the Scarlet Knights buried their own comeback hopes with repeated errors. Though they cleaned up the turnovers — they committed just two in the second half — they couldn’t make any of the shots needed to make a comeback, shooting a poor 36.1 percent in the second half. They were even worse on free throws, going an abysmal 5-for-13 from the line in the second half.
Meanwhile, Michigan’s offense continued to roll. Spurred by her electric first half, Johnson added another nine points on a perfect 4-of-4 shooting in the second half. She finished with 11 rebounds and a career-high 24 points — the first double-double of her career. Hillmon also notched a double-double, finishing with 20 points and 12 rebounds.
“I think (Johnson) played her heart out,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “I thought she had energy to the ball, I thought she had a motor to the ball, she was everywhere. I didn’t realize how much she scored offensively but I knew she rebounded the heck out of the ball. She’s kind of letting the game come to her, she’s not pressing, and she’s really playing with a lot of confidence right now.”
The Wolverines entered this game with a lot of question marks. They had already been struggling against quality teams before Robbins’ injury.
The season isn’t over, and questions still remain. But Michigan showed on Sunday that, despite its recent struggles, it can still compete with the Big Ten’s best teams — even without Kayla Robbins.