The maize, blue (and pink) fought hard on Thursday night for both a cause and the season.
In its second “pink-out” game in four days, the Michigan women’s basketball team learned from its first one, a 61-46 loss to Michigan State on Monday, and edged out Illinois, 72-69, in front of a crowd dressed to support breast cancer awareness.
On Thursday night, the Wolverines knocked off the Fighting Illini (6-4 Big Ten, 13-9 overall) in a tight battle that ended Michigan’s three-game losing streak. In an offensive game where neither team had a lead greater than seven, the defense took a backseat to hot shooting on both sides.
Sheffer was the only Wolverine to score in the first 8:07 of play, but her nine points during that span kept Michigan (6-4, 17-6) within striking distance.
Once the rest of the Wolverines got going, almost everyone found their shot, and six of the eight players that saw playing time in the first half scored. Led by Sheffer — who scored 15 of her 21 points in the first half — Michigan was able to pull away and end its losing streak. The center also added seven rebounds and four steals.
Meanwhile, the Fighting Illini found offense in all forms in the early goings of the game. During that same 8:07 span, four of the five Illinois starters scored. The Fighting Illini are second in scoring in Big Ten play, but were unable to close the game out at the end.
After going into halftime with just a four-point lead, the Wolverines had two early turnovers in the second half that allowed the Fighting Illini to tie the game at 40. Illinois found itself in deep foul trouble soon after, and was forced to sit senior forward Karisma Penn, who led the team with 12 points in the first half.
“(Fouls) were the difference in the game,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “Karisma Penn was hurting us in the first half and we weren’t able to stop her on the block, so her picking up her third foul in the first half and then getting into (more) foul trouble in the second half was a really big key for us.
“Without her, (senior forward) Nya (Jordan) was really able to push to the basket. That really helped us.”
Michigan took advantage by stretching its lead to six, and after a scoring drought for both teams that lasted almost four minutes, senior guard Jenny Ryan broke the silence by splitting the Illinois defense for a layup.
From there, it appeared the Wolverines were going to run away with the game, but the Fighting Illini fought back with 3:49 remaining and grabbed their first lead since 6:21 left in the first half. After a quick timeout, senior forward Kate Thompson picked a great time to shoot out of her five-game slump, hitting back-to-back 3-pointers that gave Michigan the lead for good. Thompson’s five 3-pointers brought her season total to 85, which is tied for the school record.
Despite Illinois getting within one with 1:20 remaining, the Wolverines were able to convert at the line, finishing 17-for-21. A quick basket from Jordan with 24.4 seconds left sealed the win.
“Closing the game out, Jenny’s free throws were huge for us,” said Thompson. “They were really key for us to win the game.”
The Wolverines shot 51.1 percent from the field, including shooting 46.4 percent in the first half, but allowed Illinois to stay in the game in the first half with its 51.7-percent shooting. However, Michigan did a better job in the second half and limited the Fighting Illini to 39.7-percent shooting on the night.
In addition to Sheffer’s huge offensive night, the Wolverines found help from Jordan, who ended the night with 13 points, and nine rebounds. Thompson had 15 points, but went 5-for-15 from the line. Ryan, who had injured her leg against Michigan State, had 13 points and seven assists but turned the ball over eight times.
The game might not have been so close had the Wolverines not turned the ball over so much. Michigan continued to struggle with turnovers, committing 12 in the first half and 23 overall, well above its average of 14.3 per game.
“They’re really a good team,” Barnes Arico said. “They pressure a lot (and) we knew we were going to have our hands full with that, but I thought we did a pretty good job.
“I know we had a ton of turnovers, but I thought we did a really good job handling the pressure. We had 17 assists, we moved the basketball really well, and we made free throws down the stretch and people made key plays when they had to.”
This was the Wolverines’ biggest win of the season and without it, they would’ve fallen to the bottom six of the Big Ten standings. Instead, they find themselves within striking distance of the conference title, tied for fourth.
“This was a huge bounce back win for us,” Thompson said. “We needed this. It gave us a lot of confidence.”