Graduate-student defender Alia Martin is one of two Wolverines to find a new home in the NWSL. Miles Macklin/Daily. Buy this photo.

In a one-on-one battle with Illinois defender Kendra Pasquale, Janiece Joyner made a rare mistake — the senior defender fouled her opponent as Pasquale sprinted to the left of the box, an unforced error that gave the Illini a penalty kick.

Pasquale lined up for the shot, and fifth-year senior goalkeeper Hillary Beall read the shot from the moment her body took motion. With a sprawling dive to her right, she sent the ball airborne in front of the goal as the Wolverines swarmed toward it. 

But as graduate student defender Alia Martin kicked the ball away from potential danger, the ball pinged off the goal post and arced toward the front of the net. A scramble for the rebound ended with Illinois forward Makena Silber on top, shoving the ball over Beall with a stomp of her cleat, taking the lead on the Wolverines’ Senior Night.

Mistakes put Michigan behind early, and it initially struggled to recover. The way the Illini controlled the game early on made the Wolverines’ comeback, double-overtime win surprising.

Those early mistakes put Michigan behind early, and it struggled to recover early on. The Wolverines fought through to a 2-1 double-overtime win after refocusing its defensive efforts.

After Illinois took charge early in the game, Michigan had to shape itself around a speed-oriented Illinois attack, something that became difficult after losing Joyner — a defensive bellwether — to an injury 15 minutes in. Combined with the rush of outside events, the Wolverines were under heavy pressure.

“Senior night, a lot of adrenaline off the base, which kind of rattled us,” sophomore forward Sammi Woods said. “We weren’t really playing our game at first. With a goal-down deficit at half, that’s always tough to come out of, but we’ve been working a lot on grit, relentlessness and just overcoming that.”

But in the 16th minute, something changed for the Wolverines. As the official waved a yellow card at Illinois defender Joanna Verzosa-Dolezal, the Wolverines found the break they needed to regroup, and they took full advantage.

Slowly, Michigan started winning the ball. Martin — who faced stiff battles on the left side of the field — started beating her assignments and moving the ball upfield. With the Wolverines’ midfield pressing forward, the Illini couldn’t sprint from the wings like they had in its early attacks.

Illinois tried to intercept through passes, but the Wolverines’ footwork gave them an edge as they fought for the ball. Cutting from side to side left the Illini constantly guessing, and that only widened the gap.

Martin played a key role in Michigan’s ball movement with crisp forward passes. By moving the ball around, the Wolverines created countless shot opportunities and wore down Illinois. By halftime, Michigan pulled ahead 6-5 in shots.

The Wolverines’ control of the ball continued in the second half. The back line kickstarted an offensive explosion, sprinting up the wings and feeding the ball toward the midfielders. This stretched the Illini’s coverage and opened countless gaps for through passes. Those gaps helped lead to the tying goal as senior midfielder Raleigh Loughman connected a corner kick with senior midfielder Meredith Haakenson’s head through Illinois’s coverage, a goal that would send the game to overtime.

The defense’s ability to move the ball past fast Illini forwards made a key contribution to a 22-2 shot differential in the half, neutralizing the ability that had caused them early troubles. Those first-half errors were a gut check for the defense, and each counterattack proved their mettle. When Illinois earned shots in a back-and-forth first overtime, the back line kept them from setting up long attacks.

“We made some tactical adjustments of some spaces that we wanted to exploit,” Michigan coach Jennifer Klein said. “… We talked a lot this week about resiliency and relentlessness and I think they fell back on those conversations that we had and it showed itself this evening.”

Much of that success came from Martin, who found a way to smother the matchups that posed so much challenge in the first half. Eventually, winning those battles led to deep attacks — including the game-winning, double-overtime goal as Woods deked around the Illini’s defenders and shot the ball into the back left corner of the net.

In Friday’s game, the Wolverines regained their tight defense when a tough opponent stood in their way. Michigan started slow for the second game in a row, but it took every opportunity to refocus and retool.