Michigan is hitting its stride ahead of crucial matchup

Wednesday, February 12, 2020 - 8:04pm

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Alexandria Pompei/Daily

Last Thursday, the Michigan women’s basketball team stood on the brink of disaster. Its second injury of the season narrowed a roster of 10 players to nine, with sophomore guard Danielle Rauch’s broken hand taking out the player who replaced Kayla Robbins after her career-ending ACL tear.

Robbins was a senior captain, a voice on the court that drove the team higher and higher early in the season. Rauch, while not matching Robbins’ on-court production, brought an emotional and vocal leadership that reverberated all the way up to the rafters.

Last Thursday, both of them had surgery. Both of them were absent when the Wolverines nearly let a double-digit lead slip from their fingers against Purdue.

Against another middling Big Ten team — Minnesota — however, they held onto the lead and grew it even larger until it became a blowout.

That game gave an answer to how Michigan would respond to a series of consecutive injuries. It also gave birth to another question: Has it become the best version of itself?

After three straight wins, including what could end up as a season-altering win over No. 18 Iowa, the Wolverines’ form couldn’t be better. But, of course, form isn’t the only thing that goes into whether a team is playing its best — Michigan knows that firsthand, after multiple long win streaks in its non-conference schedule buoyed its record to dizzying heights.

Every player on its roster seems to be clicking at the same time.

Sophomore forward Naz Hillmon is growing into her own, dominating games despite constantly seeing double-teams.

Senior guard Akienreh Johnson tallied 22 offensive rebounds in the last three games. Junior forward Hailey Brown is on fire from three, shooting 40 percent in the last three games.

Sophomore guard Amy Dilk has become everything she was hyped to be coming into the season. She’s shooting 50 percent from the field, including 3-for-5 from downtown in the last three games. Perhaps most impressively, she’s dished out 22 assists with just eight turnovers.

“(She has an) ability to impact a game in so many ways, whether that’s scoring, whether that’s passing or whether that’s rebounding,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said after Minnesota. “She’s a kid that’s capable of controlling the game and tonight, we saw her control the entire game and really take care of the ball and handle pressure.”

The three freshmen — guard Maddie Nolan, guard Michelle Sidor and center Izabel Varejão —have pushed through tough starts to Big Ten play and come out for the better.

Nolan, Rauch’s substitute, seems to do one thing really well in every game, notching four blocks against Purdue and five assists against Minnesota. Sidor awoke from her slumber, showing streaks of being able to spread the court with her 3-pointer and give Hillmon vital space inside. Varejão is highlighting her offensive talent and vision in an unstoppable high-low with Hillmon, as well as roping in her own rebounds and blocking vital shots.

“February has been known to be our month, last year we went on a seven-game run,” Dilk said after the Minnesota game. “This month so far, we’ve been doing great as well, so just continuing the wins and finishing out the Big Ten season strong going into the conference tournament.”   

This Thursday, the Wolverines play the team that beat them last: No. 19 Northwestern. With a win, Michigan will get another confidence and momentum boost, while also positioning itself one game back of Indiana for a bye into the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament.

The season, which looked close to doomed when the Wolverines lost Robbins, is now brimming with hope.