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The No. 22 Michigan women’s basketball team entered into the 2022 Gulf Coast Invitational looking to prove itself as a legitimate force in the NCAA pool. The Wolverines came in with four decisive wins against four weaker opponents. To cement themselves as legitimate moving closer to conference play, they had to make a statement. 

In an impressive 68-48 win over Air Force (3-2 overall), they put themselves in a position to do just that. Propelled by strong offensive execution and high-energy defense, Michigan (5-0) handled the Falcons to advance to the second round of the invitational, relying on its interior presence to excel offensively while smothering its undersized opponents throughout. 

Air Force  — a guard-heavy team with few players taller than six feet — matched up poorly with a Michigan unit that started four six-footers. Graduate forward Emily Kiser, in particular, has looked like a constant mismatch so far this season — averaging 21.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game.

On Friday, she continued that dominant stretch. Her five first quarter points helped jump start the Michigan offense. Three of those points came on a catch-and-shoot jumper to take a one-point lead, which the Wolverines never relinquished. Throughout the night, Kiser was a force in every phase of the game. She found success at the basket, involved her teammates, and acted as a defensive anchor throughout. 

“It’s definitely a different mindset going into games,” Kiser said. “Having someone like Naz Hillmon last year, (offense) wasn’t huge on my mind. So it adds a huge part to the game, … but it’s not pressure. I’m just trying to take what they give me (on offense).” 

The first half, though, was all about defense. Air Force generated pressure on Michigan early, ending up with 14 first half turnovers. Sophomore Madison Smith and senior Kamri Heath combined for four steals, capitalizing on some errant Michigan passes. 

That effort, however, was overshadowed by a stifling defensive performance from the Wolverines. 

They held the Falcons scoreless for long stretches by playing aggressively on the back end. One of those crushing periods came in the second quarter, when Michigan went on a 7-0 run lasting nearly six minutes. Air Force missed ten shots in that time, unable to overcome the Wolverines’ disciplined, unrelenting coverage. That intensity was reflected in the box score: After the Falcons shot nearly 38% in their prior contest, Michigan held Air Force to 23% shooting on the night. 

And after halftime, it only increased.

Senior guard Maddie Nolan stole an errant Falcon pass to start the third quarter. Then, junior forward Cameron Williams notched two of her own. The Wolverines looked more focused at both ends after the break. In the third quarter there were a couple of lapses: miscommunications in transition that led to back-to-back Air Force baskets and subsequent Michigan timeouts. But the intensity was too much for the Falcons. 

“As much as we didn’t shoot threes,” Kiser said. “Maddie Nolan stood out. Whether it was jumping that pass, or just setting the tone. That stuff doesn’t really show up in a box score, but from a player’s perspective it’s huge.” 

Another notable impactful defender was freshman forward Chyra Evans, who logged two blocks and grabbed a strong rebound in the first quarter. Friday marked Evans’ first performance as a Wolverine following injury rehabilitation to start the season. Her, along with fellow newcomers sophomore guard Greta Kampschroeder and freshman guard Alyssa Crockett, contributed in meaningful situations to a balanced Michigan victory. 

A familiar presence, on the other hand, was sophomore guard Laila Phelia. Despite finishing with only nine points — well below her season average of 20.8 — Phelia’s performance was solid on both ends. She had seven rebounds and some strong offensive plays, including a flashy finish on a backdoor pass from Kiser. 

One factor for her low total was her inefficiency from deep, an 0-for-2 performance. Overall, the Wolverines shot 3-for-7 from beyond the arc, a marked departure from other performances this season. 

But they didn’t need them. Michigan’s ability to play clean, high-energy basketball allowed it to advance past Air Force in comfortable fashion.