The two weeks that changed Michigan's season

Wednesday, February 5, 2020 - 8:48pm

The Michigan women's basketball team used its week off games to right the ship this season

The Michigan women's basketball team used its week off games to right the ship this season Buy this photo
Emma Mati/Daily

The Michigan women’s basketball team had one week without a game, its season on the brink of disaster. One week to right the ship.

First came the Jan. 9 road loss to Ohio State, where the Wolverines led for 27 minutes total, even up to halfway through the fourth quarter. Then it was the 28-point home loss to No. 17 Maryland on Jan. 12, just two weeks after Michigan played a tight game through three quarters on the road against the Terrapins.

But what looked like the dagger came a week later against Nebraska. Senior forward Kayla Robbins — the Wolverines second-leading scorer — went down in the first minute with a season-ending ACL tear, and Michigan lost after blowing a 13-point third-quarter lead. 

The loss dropped the Wolverines to 3-4 in the Big Ten and out of ESPN’s NCAA tournament prediction, and the loss of Robbins just prior to a three-game stretch against three of the Big Ten’s top five teams looked like it would be difficult to overcome. Michigan knew the challenge it would face in overcoming Robbins’ absence, but it stayed optimistic.

“Don’t let today knock you out of the water,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said after the loss to Maryland. “All our games this year have been really competitive. It’s been a tough stretch, but we’ve got to grow from it, we’ve got to learn from it.”

Lucky for the Wolverines, though, they had a week off between the Nebraska loss and their next game against Rutgers — a rare occurrence in Big Ten play. And for Michigan it was no ordinary week of practice. The bench players had to adjust to the new roles they would play. Senior guard Akienreh Johnson had to prepare to guard opponents’ top offensive threat — typically Robbins’ job.

The Wolverines had to adapt to life without Kayla Robbins.

“We just talked about one-through-10 has to step up on the court, off the court, in practice,” sophomore forward Naz Hillmon said. “Somebody needs to take on the little things she did. Anything they can do to be a part of what Kayla was to this team because she was just such a huge part, whether she was talking, or scoring or rebounding.”

From the opening tip-off against the Scarlet Knights, it was clear Michigan took the message to heart. It shot 50 percent from the floor and excelled on the defensive end, forcing 15 first-half turnovers. Johnson held Rutgers leading scorer, guard Arella Guirantes, below her season average. Johnson didn’t shut her down — she still finished with 16 points — but she filled in well in place of Robbins.

While beating the Scarlet Knights at home was a good start for the Wolverines without Robbins, they still had two tough games against the Big Ten’s best, No. 23 Northwestern and No. 18 Iowa. Winning either would be huge for Michigan’s NCAA Tournament chances.

Against the Wildcats, the Wolverines came out flat and couldn’t overcome an early deficit, but a strong final three quarters in an eight-point loss gave them optimism entering Sunday’s game against the Hawkeyes. It would be one of their last chances to pick up the signature win that Barnes Arico has talked about needing so much of late.

Sunday, Michigan came out strong and for much of the game looked as good as it had all season. The loss of Robbins was barely even noticeable. A combination of Johnson, Hillmon and sophomore guard Amy Dilk held Iowa’s leading scorer Kathleen Doyle below her season average, and the Wolverines’ bench and sophomore guard Danielle Rauch — who replaced Robbins in the starting lineup — combined for 17 points, as Michigan won by 15.

“We’ve had a little bit of a rocky start to the Big Ten season,” Hillmon said. “So just getting these wins, it’s very important to us and our confidence. The Big Ten is a tough league and to get this one is huge, and it’ll definitely help us later on.”

Even though the Wolverines have played three good games without Robbins, her absence could still play a factor going forward. Teams may find holes in the way Michigan plays without Robbins and expose them. But after an injury that could have sunk the team just over two weeks ago, the Wolverines look rejuvenated and motivated.

And looking back, the most important week of Michigan’s season might have been the week in which it didn’t play a single game.