Michigan overcomes second quarter struggles against Illinois
The Michigan women’s basketball team found itself in a precarious position at halftime against Illinois.
The Wolverines — who trailed the Fighting Illini, 40-37, at the game’s midpoint — did not make a single 3-pointer in the second quarter. Illinois outscored Michigan 23-12, making 66.7 percent of its three-point shots. It appeared that the Wolverines were headed toward an unexpected loss to an inferior foe.
But Katelynn Flaherty refused to let that happen. Michigan’s junior guard sank a shot from deep just 33 seconds into the third quarter, sparking a 12-0 Wolverine run. Michigan went on to outscore the Fighting Illini, 26-12, in the third and pulled away for a victory. Flaherty finished Wednesday’s game with 27 points.
“Any time you play a Big Ten opponent on their home court, you’re going to be in for a challenge,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “Illinois did a great job making their shots in the first half. I think it was important for us to remain positive. It’s tough to play on the road.”
The Wolverines’ (7-2 Big Ten, 18-5 overall) offense began the game quickly. Flaherty scored eight points in the first four minutes of the frame to put Michigan on top, 14-4. From there, junior forward Jillian Dunston led the way with six more points before the first intermission, giving the Wolverines a 25-17 advantage.
In the second quarter, both Michigan’s offense and its defense went cold. Fighting Illini guard Petra Holesinska tallied seven points while forward Alex Wittinger accumulated five points and six rebounds to push Illinois (3-7, 8-15) to its halftime lead. Wittinger eventually notched a double-double, finishing with 13 points and 12 rebounds.
“I talked to the guards and said, ‘If (Wittinger) comes out on the wing, really try to attack her,’ ” Barnes Arico said. “We didn’t do a good enough job, but she was really hands off in that zone.”
The Wolverines’ situation would’ve been even worse if not for Dunston and sophomore center Hallie Thome, who combined for 10 of Michigan’s 12 points in the frame. Dunston finished with a career-high 15 points while Thome racked up 16 points of her own.
“We talked about maybe turning up our defense,” Barnes Arico said. “Pressuring them a little bit more, throwing a couple of different wrinkles that way to try and take them out of what they had been doing.”
To say the Wolverines’ defense improved its aggressiveness in the third quarter would be a major understatement. The Fighting Illini failed to make a single 3-point field goal and shot just 29.4 percent overall in the frame.
That performance gave Flaherty and freshman guard Kysre Gondrezick breathing room, and they put the Wolverines ahead for good. Flaherty scored 10 points in the frame, while Gondrezick scored eight of her 19 total points in the third quarter alone.
With its victory Wednesday night, Michigan avoided a potential NCAA Tournament-jeopardizing defeat, as Illinois was No. 176 in the Ratings Percentage Index. The Wolverines already suffered a 61-58 loss at Xavier — which is No. 174 in the RPI — on Dec. 5.
While Michigan will certainly take Big Ten road victories wherever it can get them, the Wolverines will not be able to afford a quarter like Wednesday’s second stanza when they take on Iowa at home Sunday.