One way or another, it was going to be a landmark game. With both teams coming off top-20 upsets, and both coaches seeking milestone wins, the stakes were high as No. 14 Michigan returned to the road against Nebraska.
And it was an all-around team effort from the Wolverines (12-1 overall, 2-0 Big Ten) that led to a decisive 76-59 win over the Cornhuskers (10-4, 2-1), giving Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico her 500th career win and keeping Nebraska coach Amy Williams one game away from securing her 300th win.
“I mean, it was awesome,” Barnes Arico told Big Ten Network after the game. “We had different people step up and make big shots at different times through the course of the game, but really a balanced attack.”
The Wolverines got off to a strong start, scoring 13 points and holding the Cornhuskers to just four points by the first-quarter media timeout. Graduate forward Emily Kiser led the offensive charge, scoring or assisting on 10 of those points while a strong all-around defensive effort from Michigan kept Nebraska at bay.
Out of the timeout, the Cornhuskers were, somehow, even slower offensively. They scored just one point over the remainder of the quarter to end the frame with a meager five points.
“They are so good on the offensive board(s) … we really tried to lock in that just right off the bat and kind of I think, mess up their rhythm,” Kiser said. “I think they’re definitely an offensive team so when you can kind of stop them that way: Five points, I think it was in the first quarter.”
Nebraska’s abysmal five-point showing in the first quarter came largely from sophomore guard Laila Phelia’s defense on the Cornhuskers’ leading scorer, guard Jaz Shelley. Phelia, tasked with defending opponents’ best guard all season long, held Shelley scoreless in the first as the Wolverines combined for eight points off of five forced turnovers in the period.
Then, Nebraska started to wake up and play with Michigan. Shelley scored seven quick points to start the second quarter, and the Cornhuskers went on an 11-3 run with four minutes left in the half. The run was punctuated by two emphatic 3-pointers that reduced Nebraska’s deficit to just seven points. But the Wolverines had an answer, with Phelia hitting a buzzer-beating midrange shot to close the half and retake some momentum.
Coming out of the locker room, the Cornhuskers picked up where they left off, repeatedly cutting their deficit to six or seven points. Michigan, however, found an answer each time. The Wolverines’ response came from a variety of players, but nobody answered more frequently — or more assertively — than fifth-year wing Leigha Brown.
Brown, facing the team she spent her first two collegiate years playing for, led both teams in scoring and rebounding in the quarter, piling on eight points and grabbing three defensive boards in the third.
“We knew that they were going to make runs, and they did,” Barnes Arico said postgame. “They made a bunch of runs at the end of the second quarter, and then in the third quarter, and we were able to sustain those. And I think you got an opportunity to see the balance of our team and you know, Emily Kiser, whether that was inside or outside and (senior guard) Maddie Nolan got hot tonight.”
With just under six minutes to play, a Nolan 3-pointer ballooned Michigan’s lead to 17 points, her fourth make from beyond the arc of the game after struggling from deep in the Wolverines’ recent outings.
With Nebraska knocking on the door at various points, Nolan’s shot erased any notion of a comeback, giving Michigan the momentum it needed to put the game away. And the Wolverines added a punctuation mark late, with four different players scoring in the final five minutes of play.
That punctuation was evident as the game wound down. Brown — fittingly — hit a variety of difficult shots, Phelia made a jumper, Nolan tacked on more points and Kiser sank a 3-pointer — reaching a career-high three baskets from deep — to secure the victory.
Those final minutes were emblematic of the entire game. Everyone got involved, demonstrating the balanced team play that kept Michigan undefeated in conference play thus far while giving Barnes Arico her 500th career win.