INDIANAPOLIS – When you haven’t won a Big Ten Tournament game in four years, it’s easy to get a little nervous. Michigan coach Kevin Borseth, in his first year as coach of the Wolverines, felt so anxious before yesterday’s game against Penn State he couldn’t even eat.
“You just get that feeling in that belly that you don’t know exactly how you’re going to do,” Borseth said.
Though the Wolverines struggled early, Borseth’s anticipation paid off late when Michigan rallied with a 17-0 second-half run to defeat the Nittany Lions, 64-54, in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.
But Michigan didn’t get its fuel from the usual sources.
Freshman Veronica Hicks, sophomore Stephany Skrba and junior Ashley Jones all came off the bench after halftime to ignite a stagnant Michigan offense.
With the Wolverines (10-9 Big Ten, 17-12 overall) trailing 43-37, senior Krista Clement cut the lead to four with an easy layup. It didn’t seem like much, with both teams trading baskets at the time.
But then the reserves stepped up their defensive intensity. The Wolverines had two consecutive stops to go along with three free throws on the next two possessions.
Then Hicks took matters into her own hands, blocking a Penn State layup and making her own layup in transition to give Michigan a lead it would never relinquish.
“They gave us some good, fresh sets of legs, they energized us and got us back in the game,” Borseth said.
From there, the starters returned to the court, ignited by the spark from the bench. Junior Carly Benson scored six of her 15 points during the run and senior Janelle Cooper scored four.
“In the second half we did a really good job of coming back when things weren’t going our way,” Benson said.
Foul trouble in the first half kept sophomore Krista Phillips on the bench and allowed Penn State to dominate the offensive glass with seven rebounds. When Phillips returned in the second half, the Nittany Lions (4-14, 13-18) were held to three offensive rebounds.
“After halftime we were more cognizant of the fact that we gave up a lot of offensive rebounds,” Phillips said. “We talked about it and we made the adjustment.”
Phillips notched her fourth career double-double with her team-leading 15 points and 10 rebounds.
The middle of the game proved to be a test for Michigan. After taking a five-point lead midway through the first half, the Wolverines limped through the remainder of the first and the start of the second before making the late run. Penn State’s explosive transition offense and costly Wolverine turnovers set the team back before the bench responded.
Yesterday’s win was Michigan’s first in the Big Ten Tournament since it beat Illinois in 2004. More importantly, it was the first win in the tournament for any player on the Michigan roster.
“We want the kids to do well,” Borseth said. “They’ve worked so doggone hard, they really have . they want it to be a special year.”
Michigan will play Iowa tomorrow at 11:30 a.m. – a challenge, given the depth of Iowa’s roster. The Hawkeyes have three players that average more than 10 points per game.
But after the game, when Borseth was no longer too nervous to eat, he was just glad his postgame pulled pork sandwich came with a win.