There are few things that can be the difference between winning or losing a basketball game. The Michigan women’s basketball team has one of them down: bench play.
“The way that they’ve been able to play has been the difference between us being successful, and early on in league play, us not being successful,” said Michigan head coach Kim Barnes Arico after the team’s 67-61 win over Nebraska on Thursday.
The Wolverines’ second unit has come through time and time again to help them win games late. Freshman forward Naz Hillmon, who is the team’s leading scorer with 13.2 points per game, has routinely been Michigan’s go-to scoring option late in contests, and junior forward Kayla Robbins continues to be a rebounding and defensive force. Junior guard Akienreh Johnson has also begun to emerge, highlighted by her standout performance against Nebraska in which she tallied 14 points and six steals.
In Sunday’s win against Penn State, Barnes Arico turned to her bench once again. The team’s second unit would need to produce in the absence freshman point guard Amy Dilk and with senior forwards Hallie Thome and Nicole Munger already limited with injuries of their own. Freshman forward Emily Kiser, as well as freshman guards Danielle Rauch and Ariel Young, played solid defense during a late stretch at the end of the first half to help Michigan hold onto a slim one-point lead. Hillmon was her usual dominant self with a 19-point performance off the pine and Robbins dominated the glass with eight rebounds, including three on the offensive end.
On a night where just two Wolverines scored in double figures and senior forward Hallie Thome failed to register a field goal, the Wolverine bench was able to hold the Lady Lions in check and make enough plays to help keep its winning streak intact.
With Thome suffering from a lingering back injury and Dilk’s status uncertain after sustaining an injury against Nebraska, the Wolverines’ bench production has been more important than ever during its recent four-game surge. That’s especially so considering that the team is currently fighting for its NCAA Tournament life, currently projected as one of the first four teams to be left out, according to ESPN’s Charlie Creme. With little margin for error, the bench hasn’t always been perfect, but they’ve made the plays Michigan has needed to pull out four consecutive close wins.
“Thank god for the depth,” Barnes Arico said. “Because if we didn’t have the depth that we did coming into the year we’d be in a predicament right now.”
While Michigan’s ultimate goal lies in March, it is currently focused on what it can accomplish in the month of February. Despite a slew of injuries, the team has continued to fight and take the season one game at a time, in a large part because its reserves have stepped up. The result? The Wolverines’ best stretch of the season thus far.
“February’s our month,” Akienreh Johnson said.