The glimmer of hope that the Michigan women’s basketball team could pull off an upset against No. 4 Notre Dame was there, fleeting as it was. But the bigger, faster and more experienced Fighting Irish soon decided they were having none of it.
After a few early defensive stops and promising offensive sequences, the Wolverines fell victim to a 25-8 run that all but ended their night early, eventually losing by a tally of 86-64, their biggest margin of defeat this season.
Notre Dame (9-0) quickly jumped out to a 9-3 lead, charged by six points and an assist from Jewell Loyd, which prompted Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico to take an early timeout.
When play resumed, junior guard Shannon Smith — limited by a back injury in her last three games — entered the game, and her presence brought an immediate spark. After sophomore guard Madison Ristovski drained a jumper, Smith sank a 3-pointer from the corner that whittled the deficit to three.
“Shannon’s doing really well with her recovery,” said junior forward Cyesha Goree. “Whether she’s starting or (coming) off the bench, she always brings a lot of energy.”
The lead didn’t last, though, as Michigan (7-4) quickly succumbed to defensive pressure and 68.8 percent shooting from the Fighting Irish, who used the first half to build a commanding 24-point lead.
It was a comedy of errors, just as much as it was Notre Dame’s sheer superiority, which led to the entirely lopsided start. It began when freshman guard Siera Thompson’s fast-break pass in the midst of a 5-on-4 sailed far over Goree’s outstretched hands.
Later, after beating a full-court press, senior forward Val Driscoll committed a careless traveling violation, undefended in the backcourt. Smith was tripped up when she stepped on a bounce pass from junior forward Nicole Elmblad, Driscoll dropped a rebound that fell into her lap, leading to an easy putback for the Fighting Irish, and Smith jacked up a contested 3-pointer from well beyond the arc with six seconds left on the shot clock.
As they have been in several recent games, turnovers were a major issue for the Wolverines, but Barnes Arico attributed their woes mainly to opponents applying intense defensive pressure in the backcourt.
“We played Eastern (Michigan), who pressed us the entire time,” Barnes Arico said. “Then we played Notre Dame, the No. 4 team in the country.”
Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw wasn’t content with a 47-23 advantage going into halftime, opting instead to call timeout after a defensive rebound with 2.3 seconds remaining. Loyd’s Hail Mary attempt to beat the buzzer from behind the half-court line was the only shot that she missed in the first half.
Michigan found some offensive momentum in the second half, putting up 41 points, led principally by Goree and Smith, who finished with 15 and 23 points, respectively. But the Fighting Irish never relinquished their comfortable lead and kept up the pressure on both ends. Loyd finished with 20 points, and Achonwa added 18 of her own.
“I think our kids were surprised by their athleticism and by their speed,” Barnes Arico said. “Once we stopped turning it over and started making some shots, we were able to get back in defensive transition much more easily, and that helped.”