EVANSTON — Walking into Welsh-Ryan Arena, the old-school wooden bleachers and the one side of actual stadium seats gave it the look of a high school gym.
Coincidentally, the first half of the Michigan women’s basketball game against Northwestern looked just like that — a high school ballgame.
The score was 24-15, but that wasn’t even the big story of the first half. The Wolverines played one of their worst halves of the season, shooting 26.7 percent from the field, but were able to take a nine-point lead into halftime because of its stingy defense and ability to drain 3-pointers.
But coming out after halftime, the Wildcats looked like a different team. Northwestern limited itself to just eight turnovers, while shooting 50 percent from behind the arc — compared to 11.1 percent during the first half.
At one point midway through the second period, the Wolverines led by as many as 12 points, but Northwestern went on a 12-2 run to cut the deficit to two points. Their run consisted of four straight 3-pointers while Michigan only got a lay-up from junior forward Sam Arnold.
Junior center Rachel Sheffer, who went scoreless in the first half, stepped up late in the second half. She knocked down a 3-pointer to give Michigan a 34-30 lead with 11:36 left, slowing down a stampeding Northwestern team. Sheffer’s offensive production didn’t stop there. During the next possession she split a pair from the charity stripe, and then drained another layup two possessions later.
“I started out slow but I knew I needed to come back out in the second half and go at it,” Sheffer said. “We switched it up in the second half and threw a lot of different offenses at them.”
Sheffer finished with a team-high 12 points and also added five rebounds and two steals. The second-half switch allowed Sheffer to play more on the perimeter, and use her speed to beat Northwestern center Dannielle Diamant to the basket.
The late push was accompanied by a surge from the bench. Arnold, Sheffer’s backup, came in and found success in the post against Diamant. Though Sheffer struggled scoring in the paint, Arnold used her 6-foot-4 body to her advantage and finished with nine points.
“Down around that block I thought (Arnold) did a great job,” said Michigan coach Kevin Borseth.
Redshirt sophomore forward Kendra Seto also contributed off the bench. Though she averages just nine minutes per game, she logged 22 against the Wildcats. Seto tallied seven rebounds, six of which came on the defensive glass.
“We were just trying to match up, and get kids that are playing well (in the game),” Borseth said when asked about the bench. “Some of our kids weren’t playing as well as they wanted to be playing and I thought (Seto) did a great job of giving us a lift on the defensive end of the court.”
Considering that Michigan had eight players log more than 10 minutes, its reserves played a critical role in the victory. Junior forward Kate Thompson also contributed off the bench with five points and four assists.
“I think when you look at it, what concerned me about (Michigan) all year was the way that Thompson and Arnold play off the bench,” said Northwestern coach Joe McKeown. “They really give them offensive weapons that changes match-ups. I thought we did a pretty good job on their starters, but those guys hurt us.”
McKeown had said throughout the season that his team focused on stopping an opposing teams’ two-best players. But with a balanced attack — five Wolverines tallied more than eight points — that strategy didn’t work.
Defensively, Michigan did just what Northwestern tries to do. The Wildcats have three players — Diamant, junior forward Kendall Hackney and freshman guard Morgan Jones — that average a combined 43.6 points per game. The Wolverines held the trio to 39 points. But more importantly, Michigan limited them to a mere 41 percent from the field.
Though Northwestern isn’t one of the strongest teams in the Big Ten, any road win is important, and senior guard Courtney Boylan recognized the significance of the victory.
“Every game in the Big Ten is a big win, that’s how we see it,” Boylan said. “So when we prepare for a team, there’s not one opponent that we see as being a bigger win than another because every team is so good.”