Michigan survives, 66-63, against Purdue
Seventeen seconds. Michigan’s ahead by three. Purdue has the ball and one last chance to force overtime.
Eight seconds. Boilermakers’ guard Dominique Oden catches a pass and drives along the baseline.
Three seconds. Oden pops up and turns to the wing, looking to pass it out.
A whistle. The referee points to the baseline. Oden stepped out of bounds. It looks like the Wolverines (15-7 overall, 6-5 Big Ten) have escaped with the win.
But it wasn’t over yet. The inbound pass went through sophomore forward Naz Hillmon’s legs and out of bounds. After a review, the refs determined that Hillmon had never touched the ball. The Boilermakers (15-9, 6-6) had one last shot at it.
After the inbound, the Purdue player heaved up a three-quarter-court shot. It fell short. Michigan survived, 66-63.
Even before Thursday’s game started, Michigan knew it wouldn’t be an easy night. Sophomore guard Danielle Rauch — who had been filling in for injured senior forward Kayla Robbins — was out with a hand injury. This meant freshman guard Maddie Nolan, who averaged just 8.8 minutes per game entering Thursday’s contest, would be making her first career start.
Though Nolan didn’t contribute much on the offensive end, she did help her team on the glass, securing six rebounds on the night. She also added a surprising four blocks, two of which came in the first six minutes.
“I just try to take care of the ball, just bring energy to the floor,” Nolan said. “Obviously, you guys have seen (Rauch) just does a great job of getting everyone hyped. She brings the team together. She celebrates everyone no matter what, so I just tried to imitate that.”
Offensively, the Wolverines hit their stride early. With the Boilermakers crashing the paint to defend sophomore forward Naz Hillmon, the 3-point shot was open for junior forward Hailey Brown, who went 3-of-4 from deep in the first half. Senior guard Akienreh Johnson followed suit, sinking a pair of threes en route to a 12-point first half.
“Everybody that watches film on us — everyone in the country — knows that we rely on paint touches,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “ ... (But) when you can have people knock down the outside shot, it gives Naz at least a little bit more space to be successful.”
That high-low attack unleashed Hillmon, who, after being held to just eight points in the first half, doubled that output in a third quarter where her teammates struggled to hit shots. With the defense focusing on closing out on threes, she had just enough breathing room to carry the Wolverines into the fourth quarter with a six-point lead.
The separation turned out to be crucial, as Michigan’s shooting went cold in the fourth. Going nearly five minutes without a field goal, the Wolverines saw their lead — which had been as high as 14 — dwindle down to one point with under four minutes remaining. Barnes Arico called timeout and drew up a play to free up Brown on the perimeter. Brown drained the three.
“I thought the shots (Brown) made in the first half were incredible,” Barnes Arico said. “I thought she was open a lot more than we found her in the first half because I thought her girl was doubling on Naz, and we knew late that her girl was doubling on Naz, so we wanted to put her in some screening action, and if we didn’t have Naz we were gonna have her wide open coming off of a down screen.”
That shot — along with a layup from Hillmon in the final minute — ultimately sealed the win. The game was ugly, and if Rauch’s injury turns out to be long term, life won’t get any easier for Michigan moving forward.
But considering the circumstances entering today, the team will take a win however it can.