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The No. 22 Michigan women’s basketball team entered the Gulf Coast Showcase predicted to fall to No. 21 Baylor in its third meeting in as many years with the Bears. And that doubt made sense. Saturday night against Southern Florida, it needed clutch 3-pointers from senior guard Maddie Nolan and crucial free throws late in the game to escape with a win.

And that doubt seemed even more reasonable when the Wolverines fell behind by nine points in the first quarter to Baylor.

But Michigan is more than a first quarter team. And in the Gulf Coast Invitational, that showed, as it defeated Air Force, Southern Florida and Baylor to win the showcase and stay undefeated at 7-0 overall. Much of that success could be attributed to its gritty play down the stretch.

“I feel like it just tells a lot about our identity,” sophomore guard Laila Phelia said Sunday after a win against Baylor. “We definitely fought and we did what we had to do at the end.”

Against Baylor, the Wolverines played scrappy on defense, forcing 14 turnovers in the first half and converting those into 16 points.

“I think just continuing to play with that kind of toughness, and just know that our offense will come eventually, as long as we can continue to get defensive stops and rebound out of it,” fifth-year wing Leigha Brown said Saturday after a win over USF. “It’s definitely a lesson we’ve learned tonight.”

That lesson is one that Michigan put into practice against the Bears. Despite going on multiple cold streaks from the field, it was able to keep the game close and force Baylor to make mistakes.

When Michigan struggled to sink shots — as it did against both USF and Baylor — graduate forward Emily Kiser stepped up, representing the team’s gritty identity. With seven boards on the offensive glass against the Bears, Kiser kept the Wolverines in a game that could have been put away early. She came alive in the second quarter, notching 13 points to put Michigan up two headed into the break. 

Saturday against the Bulls, Kiser’s eight points and passing in the first half got the Wolverine offense to spread the floor. With Kiser getting more touches in the paint, Michigan moved the ball and players besides Brown and Phelia scored to keep the game tied at the half.

“(Kiser’s) impact on the boards and rebounding was amazing,” Phelia said. “She definitely helped us a lot, especially when the guards weren’t getting in there.”

Kiser — who was named tournament MVP — has scored at least 20 points in five of the Wolverines’ last six games, averaging 20.1 points for the season. Her efficiency in the paint makes her high-scoring efforts creep up out of nowhere, and that partially results from her ability to finish through contact and get to the free throw line. She is shooting 91.2% from the line this season and each time she converts at the charity stripe, that infuses Michigan with renewed energy at both ends of the floor.

While Kiser has shot well from the line this season, the Wolverines as a team struggled against both USF and Baylor from the charity stripe. They missed four free throws late in the game against the Bulls, allowing the game to come down to the wire. Against the Bears, they shot 15-for-23 from the line overall.

But the Wolverines stepped up when it mattered, making 9-of-12 free throws in the fourth quarter against Baylor and finishing the game on a 11-0 run. And Brown — who was only 2-of-5 from the line — sank two clutch free throws with 18.2 seconds left against USF to all but secure the win. Pushed to the brink, veteran leaders held Michigan together.

“I know we fell behind a couple of times, but never looking at the score (helped us pull away),” Kiser said. “ ‘Just taking (it) one possession at a time’ is kind of what we were saying to each other. And, I think to be able to do that and keep focus under pressure like that this early on in the season was huge.”

That approach allowed the Wolverines to run their offense and ultimately resulted in clutch 3-pointers down the stretch. Nolan hit three in a row against USF Saturday night and Phelia hit one with 48 seconds to go against Baylor to regain the lead for Michigan — one that it wouldn’t surrender.

While the Wolverines struggled at times — and trailed for extended periods for the first time all year — they showed in the Gulf Coast Showcase that they are a team that plays gritty and down to the wire. They showed that they can defeat top-25 opponents and can win games with their shooting down the stretch. And after maintaining a gritty identity this weekend, that’s something they can lean on when the season gets tough.