Michigan, down to essentially six players, was still in it.
Sophomore forward Naz Hillmon was out with an upper body injury suffered in the first quarter. Freshman guard Maddie Nolan tallied her fifth foul early in the fourth quarter. Senior guard Akienreh Johnson was battered and bruised. Freshman center Izabel Varejão hopped on one foot to the bench before coming back on.
And yet, the Wolverines were still in it against the No. 19 team in the country, Northwestern. Somehow, some way, they had limped their way into a tight fourth quarter, the win within reach.
Down by three with a minute left on the clock, the Wolverines got the stop they needed. Now, they had to devise a play to draw level with the Wildcats. Varejão’s mishandled pass blew it up, though, and freshman guard Michelle Sidor’s rushed shot painfully bounced on both sides of the rim.
The win slipped away, and despite the fight, Northwestern (21-3 overall, 11-2 Big Ten) beat Michigan (16-8, 7-6), 66-60.
“When you lose a player like Naz, everybody needs to do a little bit more,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “I think we tried to do that, but I think our freshmen kind of got exposed a little bit. They were freshmen and I think the other team was really experienced and their experience wore on our young kids. Especially late, especially in the third quarter.”
A hush fell on Crisler Center back in the first quarter as Hillmon, Michigan’s star, lay curled on the court, clutching her shoulder after colliding with another player going for a loose ball.
“I think it pissed us off. For sure it pissed me off because we were getting hacked,” Johnson said. “We just have to respond. We’re not the only team in the world that this has happened to. … We don’t make excuses. Each person that goes down is another opportunity for somebody to step up and to come and play for them.”
Shortly after Hillmon left the game, her replacement — Varejão — put the Wolverines in even further trouble by picking up two quick fouls. They were now down to two viable post players, junior forward Hailey Brown and sophomore forward Emily Kiser, the latter of whom has rarely played big minutes in big games.
Northwestern fought through its own personnel issues, with four players quickly racking up two fouls, including its most potent weapon in guard Lindsey Pulliam — who put up 32 points by herself in the last meeting.
At halftime, things looked up for the Wolverines. Hillmon ended the second quarter on the court, the Wildcats’ offense couldn’t find any success and Johnson was stepping up, making a series of improbable shots. Michigan went to break up, 35-30.
“We did a great job of getting them all in foul trouble in the first half,” Barnes Arico said. “That really helped us when they’re in foul trouble.”
The second half was a different story for the Wildcats. Guard Sydney Wood, who averages 4.3 points a game, caught fire and scored 10 in the third quarter alone. Forward Abi Scheid, another thorn in the Wolverines’ side from their last meeting, also found success out of the gate with nine points.
“When we lost Naz and we were in some foul trouble we had to go to zone and that gave them a little more flexibility to move around in that zone,” Barnes Arico said. “I thought that allowed them, too, to be more aggressive.”
Meanwhile, Michigan couldn’t get its offense rolling due to a plague of turnovers, including two pivotal ones late in the third quarter that gave Northwestern a wide open layup and 3-pointer to take a four-point lead.
“I thought we got tired a little bit and we didn’t have anybody to really go to when our point guard needed a rest and she played a lot of minutes for us,” Barnes Arico said. “Some of our turnovers in that third quarter, we gave up a big third quarter, led to easy buckets for them.”
Midway through the fourth quarter, though, the Wolverines were still in it. Johnson drove down the court, hitting a big layup that roused a dormant Crisler Center and brought them within three.
And then the Wolverines, swaying, missed their last-ditch shot and fell, coming oh-so-close.