INDIANAPOLIS — Prior to the Michigan women’s basketball team’s 55-47 loss to Illinois on Friday, Illinois coach Jolette Law stressed the importance of coming out strong in the first five minutes of the game.
“Coach always preaches first five minutes,” Illinois junior guard Lydia McCully said after the Illini’s first round win over Wisconsin. “When you come out like that, there’s no way to go but strong.”
Mission accomplished, coach.
Five minutes into the game, the last-place Fighting Illini — who lost 12 straight games prior to the Big Ten Tournament — led 10-2, and the third-seeded Wolverines (10-7 Big Ten, 17-12 overall) couldn’t buy a bucket.
“It was extremely important (to start off the game strong),” Law said after the game. “I knew what we were looking for, I knew Michigan was going to come out and probably be aggressive.”
Illinois (4-14, 9-22) never trailed, and the Fighting Illini became the first-ever 11 seed to make it to the tournament semifinals.
And things only got worse for Michigan after the first five minutes. By the time the first-half buzzer sounded, Illinois had all but run the Wolverines out of Conseco Field House with a 37-16 lead — the Illini’s biggest halftime lead of the year.
“Any time you’re not doing well on the offensive end of the court, the other team’s offense does really well,” Michigan coach Kevin Borseth said. “The more you struggle offensively, the better the other team’s offense works. That was what, in my opinion, it came down to.”
Sixteen points was the fewest that Michigan has scored in a half this season. Illinois forward and Detroit native Amber Moore nearly equaled Michigan’s point total with 14 first-half points.
The Wolverines shot an atrocious 13.3 percent from behind the arc, and just 26.9 percent from the field. The Fighting Illini, on the other hand, shot 44.4 percent from behind the arc and over 51 percent from the field — more than 10 percent higher than their season average in both categories.
“I don’t necessarily think we took them too lightly,” sophomore guard Jenny Ryan said. “I just think we couldn’t hit shots. When it comes down to it, they hit their shots and we didn’t, and that was the difference in the first half. We got the looks we wanted.”
And for Michigan, whose turnover-to-assist ratio was second in the nation before Friday’s game, it looked like the ball was covered in bacon grease for much of the first half, as the Wolverines ended the frame with 16 turnovers and 12 assists.
But even after facing the teams’ largest first-half deficit of the year, Borseth remained positive in the locker room.
“No goal was too deep,” Michigan forward Kate Thompson said about Borseth’s halftime message. “We can always come back from this.”
And in the second half, they came out looking like it.
The Wolverines came out on a 9-2 run to start the frame, cutting the lead to 14.
“Just take it at them, chip away at that lead, and our goal was to get within 10 points and never give up and keep fighting,” sophomore guard Jenny Ryan said. “We all just kind of bought into that.”
Even after the lead ballooned back up to 24 after a jumper by Illinois guard Adrienne GodBold with nine minutes to go, Michigan refused to give up.
And after a layup by sophomore forward Sam Arnold with just over three minutes to play, the Wolverines finally cut the lead to single digits.
“I definitely thought we had a chance (to win),” Thompson said. “We just had to get a couple big threes and get some more stops. They couldn’t really handle our zone at the end.”
But it was all too little, too late. A seven-point deficit with a minute to go was the closest Michigan got.
And with no other chances to prove themselves to the NCAA Tournament committee, all the Wolverines can do is hope that they’ve done enough to get to the Big Dance.
“Generally I think they look for 19 or 20 (wins),” junior guard Courtney Boylan said. “But we played some really good teams and finished third in the Big Ten, so hopefully they will take notice of that.”