EVANSTON – This was their chance.
The Wolverines have been stuck in the cellar of Big Ten’s women’s basketball, finishing last in the conference the previous two years.
Michigan won just three Big Ten games in that span.
But things seemed to be improving. The Wolverines lost by just five to No. 16 Purdue Thursday.
And a win at lowly Northwestern yesterday – the only team behind Michigan in the Big Ten standings – would’ve been the first time the Maize and Blue won a Big Ten road game in more than three years.
But the Wolverines weren’t ready to turn the corner.
They made several crucial mistakes down the stretch and couldn’t fully erase a 14-point Northwestern lead, falling 63-54 to the Wildcats.
Michigan used its final timeout trailing by six with one minute left, but played foolishly after the stoppage and couldn’t complete the comeback.
“We talked to the kids that at some point, you just have to make decisions on your own and go out and play the end of the game,” Michigan coach Cheryl Burnett said. “So once we’re out of timeouts trying to stay in the game, the kids just have to play the game the way we hoped we’d taught them. But we didn’t do a good job at the end.”
Resuming play, Northwestern had the ball, and after running 18 seconds off the clock, Wildcat Beth Marshall drained a wide open 3-pointer from the left corner to extend the lead to nine.
Then Michigan came down and set up its offense, but freshman forward Lequisha Whitfield’s shot in the lane – 18 seconds after Marshall’s 3-pointer – was blocked and the Wildcats gathered the loose ball.
“We called an option that takes 20 seconds to run when we need to score quickly,” Burnett said. “Forty seconds left and we’re not trying to do our quicker-hitters.”
Northwestern passed the ball around for eight seconds before calling a timeout. Michigan didn’t seem to make any effort to intentionally foul.
“If you’re down (and) there isn’t very much time left, you assume you have to pick up the ball. You assume you have to double. And then you assume you have to foul,” Burnett said.
And then there was the free-throw shooting. The Wolverines made just three of their last seven attempts.
Michigan needed the potential-comeback late because of how it was dominated in the first half.
The Wolverines shot 35 percent worse from the field than Northwestern, netting just seven field goals in the first 20 minutes. The Wildcats, led by senior forward A.J Glasauer’s 14 points on six-for-eight shooting, held a 32-18 advantage at the break.
But Michigan (3-11 Big Ten, 10-17 overall) started the second half strong. The Wolverines opened the frame with a 14-4 run over the first four and a half minutes and held Glasauer scoreless over the span.
“We knew Michigan was going to come out hard in the second half,” Northwestern coach Beth Combs said. “They came out harder on defense. Michigan fights and they fought down to the end.”
But Glasauer resumed her scoring responsibilities and netted the next four points. A Carly Benson 3-pointer with 10 minutes left put Michigan within two, but the Wolverines were never able to get over the hump, failing to take the lead at any point.
Michigan was close, but in college basketball, close won’t elevate a program to the next level.