“They celebrated like we won the national title.” — Cheryl Burnett, Michigan women’s basketball coach
For a team that had not won in 36 days — after losing nine straight — Michigan’s 63-61 victory over Indiana yesterday felt like a Final Four win. With a roster full of freshmen, the Wolverines’ behavior was not unexpected. A month’s worth of losses were finally lifted off Michigan’s shoulders.
But it was the play of the upperclassmen on the team that kept Michigan in the game. With two and a half minutes left in the second half and Michigan trailing 58-55, senior forward Tabitha Pool — accepting the role as leader of the young Wolverine squad — took the ball up the court with the shot clock winding down. Pool drove past her defender to the left wing, jumped and hit a topsy-turvy layup, drawing a foul from Indiana sophomore guard Leah Enterline. Pool hit the free throw to tie the game and bring the crowd to their feet.
“Tab (Pool) mixes so well her outside shots and her dribble penetration,” Burnett said. “Those are things we have worked on with Tab because we know that everyone is going to run after her when she drives. By the end of the game Tab can take the big shot because she has kicked out earlier in the game.”
Michigan (1-6 Big Ten, 5-13 overall) tied the game at 58-58, but Indiana came back to take the lead on an Enterline free throw. Sophomore forward Kelly Helvey came back down the court and hit a fall-away layup with the shot clock winding take the lead 61-60, but Pool made sure that it would be the last time Indiana (1-6, 8-9) had control of the game.
Pool’s athletic ability took over again. She blew past another Indiana defender to hit the game winning layup with 46 seconds left, putting Michigan up 62-61. Indiana turned the ball over with 32 seconds remaining, and Michigan ran the time out. When Pool grabbed a rebound off freshman Krista Clement’s missed shot with 0.3 seconds left, the Wolverines finally sealed their first victory since Dec. 11 against IUPUI.
“I’m so proud of our kids because of so many of the things we have worked on,” Burnett said. “(We) stopped the drive, executed offensively. We kept our composure when every possession was critical.”
Controlling the ball with 11:30 left, Pool missed a long 3-pointer but followed her shot to grab the offensive rebound. Pool fell to the ground and looked like she was getting tied up. Before Indiana could force the jumpball, Pool shoveled the ball to freshman Janelle Cooper, who was also on the ground. Just as Cooper got the ball, she tapped it to a cutting Becky Flippin, who drew a foul. That effort typified how the team played throughout the game and the losing streak.
“We had some really great effort (plays),” Burnett said. “The kid who had more hustle plays than anybody was Jessica Starling. She’s on the floor, really giving us a lot of effort. I always want to appreciate the fans too, because if we do something hustle-wise they really try to carry us the next play. We talked about out-hustling Indiana.”
With Michigan hustling on every possession, diving after the loose balls and protecting the ball better, the Wolverines had more offensive possessions. Michigan took advantage of the extra plays to get additional shots and kept Indiana on its heels.
“If you eliminate turnovers, we will be executing more,” Pool said.
But the other key to the game was the defense of Michigan on Indiana’s junior guard Cyndi Valentin. Valentin came in averaging almost 17 points and five rebounds per game. Michigan gave the difficult duty of covering the 5-foot-8 guard to Helvey. Helvey embraced the challenge, holding Valentin to just seven points on 3-for-12 shooting.
“I liked taking it on myself,” Helvey said. “(She) had (seven) points, and that’s a lot of pride for me.”
With the Michigan defense containing the Hoosiers’ best player, and the offense reducing its mistakes, the Wolverines got their first Big Ten victory. The whole team felt like its effort in practice finally resulted in a victory that will carry into upcoming games.
“We knew that, through our hard work in practice, that (effort) would pay off,” Clement said.