The players may have acted like they didn’t know about it.
The coaches may have said the topic never came up in practice.
But the jubilation following the Michigan women’s basketball team’s surprising win over Penn State suggested that a huge weight had been lifted from the Wolverines’ shoulders.
That weight had been accumulating for three seasons.
Michigan had been in the midst of a program-record 28-game Big Ten losing streak that was finally snapped yesterday when the Wolverines rocked the Lady Lions, 55-41, at Crisler Arena.
Just two other teams, Northwestern and Minnesota, have had longer losing streaks in Big Ten play. They lost 43 and 31 games during their droughts, respectively.
After the win, most members of the team wanted to focus on Thursday’s game against Wisconsin, but Kelly Helvey, the lone senior on the team, took time to reflect on what the win means to her.
“I haven’t won a Big Ten game in over a year and a half,” Helvey said. “I just felt good to be out there. . As long as (wins) keep coming, we’ll be happy, but we need to continue to work hard.”
Just like Michigan did yesterday.
In what both head coaches called the bloodiest game they have ever been a part of, the physical nature of the game left several players bruised and battered. There were several instances in which the officials stopped the clock in order to wipe blood from the court.
For a team that never talked about the losing streak, the Wolverines definitely fought with the passion it would take to break it.
“It was a battle,” Michigan coach Cheryl Burnett said. “Nothing dirty, but we kept our trainer Mark busy. I think he was just trying to get some floor time.”
After struggling to consistently dribble-penetrate throughout the season, Michigan (1-3 Big Ten, 8-9 overall) stormed to the basket all afternoon, drawing a slue of Lady Lion fouls. Freshman Kalyn McPherson set the tone for the Wolverines’ aggressiveness.
In her first career start, McPherson found a comfort level that had escaped her earlier in the season. Even though McPherson struggled to finish to the basket (just 2-for-10 from the field), the Traverse City native found lanes in the Penn State defense almost every time she touched the ball.
McPherson’s added offensive threat seemed to loosen the Wolverines’ offense, and they executed more effectively than most games this season.
The Wolverines slowed the game’s pace down and found easy passes when Penn State’s defense broke down. Junior Ta’Shia Walker came off the bench to provide a spark in the post, finding ways to get open inside throughout the second half.
“We worked a lot in practice on screening and trying to get people open, and it just so happened that I got open a lot of times,” Walker said. “Other people got open, too, and just hit shots, and that’s what we need to do to win ball games.”
The offensive gameplan looked smooth, but open shots weren’t always falling. Even though the Wolverines shot an underwhelming 30.4 percent from the field, Michigan’s stout defense made up for its shooting woes.
“A lot of times (the Lady Lions) don’t like pressure,” Helvey said. “They don’t like physical contact. . We’re a physical team, and if we just keep in people’s britches, we’ll win games.”
The Wolverines proved their aggressiveness early, forcing tough shots on Penn State’s first four attempts. Michigan credited its defensive effort to extensive practice in post defense. The Wolverines also boxed out well. The Lady Lions (1-3, 8-9) had just three second-chance points the entire game.
“We just had some blue collar, good work going on out there,” Burnett said. “We defended well early, and that hasn’t always been the case. When you defend well you gain a lot of confidence.”
Although it must be a huge relief to have that weight lifted from their shoulders, the Wolverines won’t admit to it.
“We always go out to win the next ball game,” Burnett said. “That’s it.”
Penn State 41
By the numbers
3 Michigan just ended the third-longest conference losing streak in Big Ten history
28 Consecutive Big Ten losses suffered by the Wolverines prior to yesterday’s win
8 Consecutive losses to Penn State, dating back to 2002, before yesterday’s victory
0 Number of conference games Michigan won last season.