COLUMBUS — At halftime of Thursday night’s game, it was looking good for Michigan.
The Wolverines led Ohio State by three at the break, but it felt like they had control. The Buckeyes shot just 40 percent from the floor in the first half. Their leading scorer, forward Dorka Juhász, was held to just three points. The only reason they were in the game was that they shot 7-for-15 from 3-point range — uncharacteristic for a team that shot just 28.5 percent from deep entering the game, and likely to drop in the second half.
Most importantly for Michigan, sophomore forward Naz Hillmon was at her best. Hillmon tallied 18 points and nine rebounds in the first half, all without missing a field goal. She was especially dominant on the offensive glass, pulling in six offensive rebounds and converting those into five second-chance points.
In losses to Florida State and Maryland, Hillmon logged two and three first-half points, respectively, in part due to early foul trouble. Without their biggest offensive weapon in rhythm, the Wolverines had difficulty scoring efficiently or gaining any momentum. On Thursday, she didn’t pick up a foul until the second half.
“Not having to sit on the bench definitely helps just because it takes a lot to get going,” Hillmon said. “Sometimes when you’re in foul trouble you get the opportunity to see what’s going on, but I’d rather be on the floor figuring out what’s going on than on the bench. It definitely helped my flow of the game.”
Since those two games, getting Hillmon going early was a focus for Michigan, and after the first half, it looked as though she would carry the Wolverines to a victory.
Hillmon was also partially responsible for Ohio State’s interior struggles. The Buckeyes’ four forwards that played in the first half combined for 12 points while shooting just 4-for-13 from the floor. Since she and junior forward Hailey Brown weren’t in foul trouble, they were able to play aggressively in the paint, not giving Ohio State’s bigs any room to work and preventing second-chance opportunities — the Buckeyes reeled in just one offensive rebound in the half.
But in the second half, Ohio State made a defensive adjustment. The Buckeyes packed the paint and pushed Hillmon as far away from the basket as possible.
“That took away some of our spacing angles to get her the ball,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “Every time we were trying to get (Hillmon) the ball it was getting tipped or deflected because there were a lot of people around her.”
Senior forward Kayla Robbins scored 10 first-half points, preventing Ohio State from devoting its full attention to Hillmon, but Robbins picked up her second foul early in the second quarter and sat for the final seven minutes of the first half. She couldn’t get going again early in the second half, and with none of the Wolverines’ other scorers playing particularly well, stopping Hillmon was the Buckeyes’ only focus.
“We really need to figure out how we can get somebody else going,” Hillmon said. “It definitely was key that Kayla got in some foul trouble because she’s such a great help on offense and defense.”
Because of the increased attention, Hillmon was only able to attempt one field goal in the second half. She still drew fouls and got to the line — she attempted six free throws in the half — but scored just six points.
Without her constant offensive production, Michigan struggled. The Wolverines stuck with Ohio State in the third quarter, but in the fourth quarter, the Buckeyes got hot, shooting over 70 percent and outscoring Michigan by nine. The Wolverines couldn’t keep up without Hillmon’s dominance, resulting in a 78-69 loss.
When Michigan has played its best, its secondary scorers have contributed just as much as Hillmon. Against Syracuse, Robbins led the way with 23 points. Against Michigan State, sophomore guard Amy Dilk scored 23. In both games, four Wolverines finished in double figures.
But in Thursday’s second half, nobody could supplement Hillmon’s production, and Michigan saw a conference road game against a rival slip away.