Friday afternoon it was Akienreh Johnson and Kayla Robbins. On Sunday, it was Naz Hillmon. The common thread: two wins, two strong performances from the Wolverines’ bench.
At the beginning of the season, much of the conversation surrounding a revamped Michigan women’s basketball squad centered around its depth, which looked to be one of this team’s greatest strengths. That notion has been supported a number of times this season, but especially of late.
Prior to Friday’s matchup with No. 13 Iowa, Michigan had lost consecutive games and sat in tenth in the Big Ten with their tournament hopes teetering on the brink. Additionally, senior guard Nicole Munger hadn’t practiced that week due to an ankle injury — despite eventually playing 35 minutes against the Hawkeyes. All signs pointed to the Wolverines dropping their third in a row.
Thanks in large part to bench players like Johnson and Robbins, the Wolverines didn’t. Instead, on the back of a combined 32 points and 15 rebounds from the junior guard and junior forward respectively, they won. Hillmon, too, chipped in eight points.
“Munger and Hallie (Thome) were a little beat up so they haven’t been practicing as much as the rest of us,” Johnson said. “That means players like me, Naz and Kayla had to step up a lot in practice. So I think their absence made us grow more because we’re like, ‘If they can’t play then they expect us to play better.’ ”
In a quick turnaround, Michigan traveled to Madison the next day to take on Wisconsin on Sunday. Despite the Badgers’ .500 record, the Wolverines’ struggles away from Crisler Center this season suggested the game would be anything but straightforward.
The inclination was correct, but Michigan still came away with its first Big Ten road win of the season. Once again, some of the best performances of the day came from the Wolverines’ bench. Hillmon scored a team-high 20 points, while Robbins posted a solid stat line, with six points, four rebounds and two blocks in just 16 minutes.
“I think our bench has proven itself all year long,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico after the game. “We were really confident that Kayla and Naz could really help us today.”
The games against Iowa and Wisconsin are just the latest examples of how important the Wolverines’ depth has been in their success this season. Though Michigan has extended its rotation when necessary, the usual three-deep rotation of Hillmon, Johnson and Robbins has come up big during some inconsistent spells from starters.
The Wolverines likely wouldn’t have picked up wins against Washington and Ohio State earlier this year if it weren’t for the play of their bench. Against the Huskies, Hillmon, Robbins and Johnson combined for 21 points and 16 rebounds — including six on the offensive glass — while both sophomore guard Deja Church and sophomore forward Hailey Brown went scoreless. In the four-point victory against the Buckeyes, when the starters shot 37-percent from the field, Hillmon finished with 20 points and eight rebounds — one of her six 20-plus performances this season.
In terms of scoring, no one player has carried the load for Michigan this season. Thome leads the team, averaging just 12.9 points per game. Right behind her is Hillmon with 12.7. The Wolverines’ balance and depth are some of their greatest assets. On any given night, anybody can shoulder the offensive burden.
It should go without saying, though, that Michigan’s best chance for success in the last seven games of the season comes when the starters and bench excel in tandem.
“If we have two or more players playing exceptionally well off the bench and our starters are on their game, we’re a tough team to beat,” Barnes Arico said.
In the meantime, though, the Wolverines’ bench play has helped get their season back on track.