FAIRFIELD, Conn. — The No. 23 Michigan women’s basketball team began its first road test against Fairfield in unfamiliar waters. Without any experience in a hostile environment and minimal experience playing from behind, the Wolverines were gasping for air as the teams traded leads and baskets for much of the first half.
But despite the situational inexperience that led to a slow start and sloppy play, Michigan (4-0 overall) eventually pulled away from the Stags (2-3) and emerged with a 69-53 victory.
“It was the first road game so we just have to improve,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said Sunday. “We’re going to be a work in progress, when you’re on the road, you have to learn to dial it up on the defensive end, which, when I thought we did, we really established ourselves and set the tone.”
Fairfield drew first blood, scoring five points unanswered before senior guard Maddie Nolan hit back-to-back 3-pointers to put Michigan up, both of which were assisted by fifth-year wing Leigha Brown. The rest of the first quarter remained a tight, relatively messy affair as the teams traded points, fouls and turnovers. A buzzer-beating 3-pointer from sophomore guard Laila Phelia put the Wolverines up by five at the end of the first quarter, giving them a jolt of energy they hoped would carry over into the second.
Michigan struggled to find separation as the Stags fought to keep the game close. Fairfield looked quicker, more alert and like the more united team, while the Wolverines let travel calls and the Stags’ aggressive zone defense affect their game. Michigan seemed flustered early on, turning the ball over repeatedly and never really hitting its stride. But entering halftime, it seemed to have found more of a rhythm, going into the break up 34-25, its largest lead of the half and one it had swiftly built by scoring six points in the final minute.
Opening the second half, the Wolverines played as a much more cohesive unit.
“Phelia was able to kind of pick up full court and really kind of make them uncomfortable,” Brown said. “And so that was kind of fed into to the rest of the team, really trying to get our hands in passing lanes and try to contest shots.”
Those clogged passing lanes led to forced turnovers and a significant momentum shift. Steals on three of Fairfield’s first four offensive possessions allowed Michigan’s lead to be extended to double digits for the first time. And after Brown poured in five points in less than a minute of play, the Stags were forced to call a timeout less than three minutes into the half.
But it wasn’t enough to just shift momentum — the Wolverines wanted to impose their will. They forced yet another Fairfield turnover, and their defense continued to play with an intensity that seemed to be lacking earlier in the game.
It was now the Stags’ turn to play frustrated. Following up their rapid turnovers with two defensive fouls in a one-man press and reaching five team fouls less than halfway through the quarter, Fairfield lost all control.
Michigan had flipped the script. Instead of being the team that got flustered with its sloppy plays, the Wolverines got to reap the benefits of their opponents’ frustration. Michigan took advantage of these fouls, with graduate forward Emily Kiser sinking 10-of-12 free throws in the second half en route to a game-high 20 points. Kiser was a thorn in the Stags’ side the entire half, drawing double teams and forcing them to pay for their needless fouls.
As the Wolverines continued to force Fairfield to throw the ball away, the Stags turned stagnant.
Michigan held Fairfield to just six points in the last six minutes of the quarter, ending the frame with eight points off of nine Stag turnovers. The fourth quarter saw no real change. Fairfield attempted to claw back but was unable to make any dent in the Wolverines’ 16-point lead.
“We talked about just pressuring them,” Kiser said. “… We can get up in them, they’re not used to that, … (opponents) just not letting them be comfortable.”
Though Michigan didn’t start dominantly, the Wolverines’ aggressive defense and methodical offense were ultimately too much for the Stags to overcome.