The Michigan women’s basketball team was desperate.
Without a field goal halfway through the second half, the Wolverines saw their six-point lead gradually transform into their largest deficit (eight).
But then sophomore Jessica Minnfield took the spotlight.
Scoring 18 of her 25 points in the final seven minutes of the contest, Minnfield led Michigan to an important 55-52 road victory over Illinois Sunday night.
The 25 points was a career high.
“I told Jess after the game, ‘It’s a good thing somebody stepped up,’ ” Michigan coach Kevin Borseth said.
After Fighting Illini Lacey Simpson laid in a basket off a Minnfield turnover, she made up for her mistake by going on her own 8-2 run. Minnfield carried a team struggling to create shots, nailing two of her three baskets from behind the three-point arc.
In fact, the only other Wolverine to score down the stretch was Carly Benson, whose triple knotted the game at 45.
After that, it was all Minnfield.
The Toledo, OH., native netted her fourth and fifth threes to set a career-high for 3-pointers.
And with Illinois threatening to regain the lead, Minnfield’s cool demeanor at the charity stripe maintained Michigan’s advantage.
Even then, her effort may have gone for naught.
As Minnfield made her second pair of free throws to give the Wolverines a three-point lead, Illinois’ Lori Bjork – who narrowed the gap to one just moments before – took another shot from beyond the arc. But the shot rattled in and out and Michigan won its third road game this season.
Minnfield was the only double-digit scorer for the Wolverines.
Before she found her shooter’s touch, the Wolverines (16-10 overall, 9-7 Big Ten) shot 2-for-11 in the second half. Facing a patient Fighting Illini (15-12, 7-9) defense, Borseth tried a slightly different movement than normal to create open shots. But following eight turnovers and just three points in the first 11 minutes, a new game plan was in order.
“I just told the guys, ‘Listen, go back to what you were doing,’ ” Borseth said. ” ‘I’m going to get out of your offensive game. We’ve got to put points on the board. I don’t care how you do it; find a way to do it.”
While Michigan found its way on offense, it never slacked defensively.
Coming into Sunday’s game, Illinois center Jenna Smith averaged 19.5 points per game. But the Wolverines’ inside presence limited Smith to just six points for the contest. It was the first time Smith scored less than 10 points in 28 games.
“I think tonight, we did a really good job of trying to keep her out as much as we possibly could,” Borseth said. “I thought our defense played extremely well. I thought (sophomores Krista Phillips and Stephanie Skrba did a great job collectively working on keeping the ball out of her hands.”
What Smith lacked was made up by Illinois guard Rebecca Harris who put up 21 points and five assists for the game. Harris made key shots to keep the Fighting Illini within striking distance of the Wolverines. But in the end, Minnfield won the guard battle.
Ending their away schedule on the high note, the Wolverines face a Wisconsin team who comes to Ann Arbor riding a four-game winning streak. The Badgers look to avenge an overtime loss back on Jan. 17. In that game Phillips hit a 40-foot shot to force the extra session.
While Borseth may be satisfied to win his last two games, he understands the final two are just as important.
“The whole season goes right down to tubes if we don’t do well at the end of the year,” Borseth said. “Everything falls right through the ceiling if we don’t do well in the next two games. So we need to keep up the charges.”