In a game defined by messy play on both ends of the court by both teams, the No. 15 Wolverines (9-0 overall, 4-0 Big Ten) overcame their initial offensive and defensive struggles to defeat Illinois (2-6, 0-5), 70-50.
The first half was played by a team that is the antithesis of the one that is ranked 15th in the nation. The Wolverines struggled to guard players on defense and gave up a four-point lead early in the game. Illinois maneuvered easily through the man-to-man coverage that Michigan played and should have had a larger lead if not for poor shooting on their part. The lead forced coach Kim Barnes Arico to take an early timeout in the first quarter.
The early timeout ended up being a crucial part of the Wolverine’s recovery — Michigan held Illinois to only three points in the second quarter.
“After the timeout, we made some adjustments on (defense),” Barnes Arico said. “We switched up. We went zone, we went man and kind of gave them a different look. We also put (graduate-student guard Akienreh Johnson) on (Illinois guard Jeanae Terry), who was doing that action. (Johnson)’s a tremendous defender.”
The Wolverine’s offense struggled initially, giving up five turnovers in the first quarter. In a moment that represented their attack early in the game, junior guard Danielle Rauch had the ball easily stolen from her at half-court by Illinois, which was run back to the basket and shot for two points.
In the first half, only three of Michigan’s players had scored: junior forward Naz Hillmon, Johnson and junior guard Amy Dilk. Hillmon would lead the team in points at the end of the game with 24. The Wolverines had a 37% field-goal percentage at the end of the first half, compared to Illinois’s dismal 26.7% field-goal shooting.
Barnes Arico made frequent adjustments throughout the half, subbing players in and out to see what five-player lineup would manage best against the Fighting Illini. Sophomore guard Maddie Nolan was subbed in for Rauch and played better defensively. Nolan’s presence generated momentum for the team, and a smart steal turned into an easy lay-up for Johnson in the second quarter.
Turnover margin also improved as the game progressed, but Michigan would still end up turning it over 16 times.
Michigan’s halftime adjustments didn’t solve any problems offensively. The second half opened with five turnovers and 5-for-15 shooting. Passing, which is a staple for the usually dynamic Wolverine offense, was hasty and prone to mistakes. Dilk, the go-to facilitator of the offense, struggled to make good, consistent decisions and led the team in turnovers with six.
Senior forward Hailey Brown had a strong showing in the second half, scoring important points that generated momentum for the team. Brown scored a shot-clock buzzer-beating 3-point shot that energized the team and boosted the morale of the bench.
“When I hit that I just felt good and it did bring more energy into the game. I think that was a huge pivot point,” Brown said.
The three points by Brown turned over a new leaf for the Michigan offense late in the game, which exploded. Johnson, who finished with 17 points, had nine of them come from the fourth quarter. Freshman forward Whitney Sollom came off of the bench in the fourth quarter and quickly put up five points. The fourth quarter saw the Wolverines put up 27 points when they scored 28 points in just the first half.
“I just think we needed to make their defense have to work.,” Barnes Arico said. “You know, reverse the ball to the other side of the floor, reverse the ball back five or six passes to make their defense actually have to work. Once we settled down and when we’re able to do that, our shot selection was tremendous.”
The stagnant offense that has plagued Michigan recently is driven by the absence of junior wing Leigha Brown, who is second on the team in points per game and has been unavailable in the last two games due to COVID-19 protocols. Hillmon’s performances bailed out the Wolverines this week and last week against Nebraska, but the offense sorely needs Leigha Brown to return.
Michigan’s seemingly dominant win over Illinois wasn’t due to a consistently good performance, rather, it was due to an opponent’s consistently bad performance. The Wolverines’ offensive explosion late in the game expanded their lead and made the win look impressive. But Michigan has been lucky thus far by making fewer mistakes than other teams, and their showing today was not one to be overly excited about.