The game of basketball boils down to two fundamentals — making baskets and playing defense. On Thursday, the Michigan women’s basketball team failed in both areas, leading to a 57-39 rout by No. 24 Nebraska.
Both the Wolverines and Cornhuskers struggled to find a rhythm on offense, exchanging leads throughout the first half. Michigan started the game in a man-to-man defense, containing Nebraska’s leading scorer, junior guard Jordan Hooper, to two points at the break. The Huskers allowed a 10-2 run out of the gates, but tightened up their defense to let only senior guard Nya Jordan score in double digits with 10 points in the first half.
Nebraska shot a mere 25.9 percent from the field in the first half, but Michigan wasn’t much better at 32.4 percent. Nonetheless, the Wolverines took advantage of a struggling Husker team to take a slim lead at the break, 22-18.
The second half was a different story.
As Michigan sank into a 2-3 zone, Nebraska went on a 21-0 run while the Wolverines’ offense seemed to vanish. Within an instant, a game that Michigan seemed to control became too much to handle.
“The second half we came out dead — we didn’t have any energy,” said senior forward Rachel Sheffer. “The biggest thing was that we weren’t hitting shots, but we were going on the defensive end and letting them hit shots. When we’re not hitting shots, we have to step up our defensive game especially.”
The Wolverines couldn’t find an answer for Huskers’ senior guard Lindsey Moore, who finished the game with 15 points and eight assists. Moore not only controlled her team’s tempo on offense, but she also locked down Michigan senior guard Jenny Ryan on defense. Ryan, who earned this week’s Big Ten Player of the Week Honors, followed up a career-high 24 points against Michigan State with just six points against Nebraska.
“I thought tonight Nebraska did a great job of wearing (Jenny) out and they guarded her,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “She played 39 minutes, so I mean they exhausted her and did a tremendous job on her defensively, and she seemed a little bit tired.”
The leading scorer for the Wolverines this season, senior guard Kate Thompson, shot an abysmal 2-for-17 from the field and finished with five points. Thompson was guarded tightly off of screens, and while she saw a fair share of opportunities, she was never able to find a rhythm, shooting a mere 10 percent from behind the arc. The Huskers effectively double-teamed Thompson to contain her dangerous 3-point shot, forcing Michigan’s offense to find the open player.
“They left the people coming off the bench wide open, and I think we were kind of shocked by that,” Sheffer said. “We weren’t really sure what to do. We had wide-open looks but we just didn’t knock them down.”
While the Wolverines continued to allow Nebraska to shoot through their zone, no one stepped up for Michigan on offense. Several times in the second half, the Huskers doubled Thompson and Sheffer, leaving sophomore guard Nicole Elmblad wide open. Elmblad, who isn’t known for her offensive abilities, missed all three of her attempts shooting.
“For a lot of us, we were never wide open in the season,” Jordan said. “I think for the most part we had to think what we wanted to do and that took us out of our routine and rhythm.”
Senior guard Sam Arnold came off the bench in an attempted relief role, but the Wolverines couldn’t handle the pressure. Michigan found itself constantly battling the shot clock as Ryan continued to force the ball to Thompson and Sheffer.
“Obviously they did a great job of doubling our other kids and getting kids open,” Barnes Arico said. “We need some other kids to come in and make some plays for us in order for us to be successful.”
This isn’t the first sighting of a stagnant Wolverines offense. In its first game against Michigan State in East Lansing, Michigan struggled to find a rhythm in the second half and settled for last-second shots. The Wolverines’ panic on Thursday resembled the offensive production that contributed to their four-game conference skid.
But if there is anything Michigan has learned from its mid-season slide, it’s how to bounce back against tough teams. After losing four out of five games in the Big Ten, the Wolverines responded by defeating three consecutive top-tier Big Ten teams. Michigan now has the opportunity to make a monumental rebound on Sunday at No. 8 Penn State and prove that Thursday’s game was simply a hiccup.
“We’ve been in this position before — in a little slump,” Sheffer said. “It was just a bad night to play basketball for us. We just need to make sure tomorrow we come in and get ready for Penn State.”