Midway through the third quarter on Sunday, Michigan found itself on the wrong end of an Oakland run.
After hitting only one field goal in four minutes, the Wolverines saw their once 13-point lead dwindle down to just four with 2:18 remaining in the quarter. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies were on fire, scoring 13 points over that same stretch. Michigan needed a spark.
Sophomore forward Naz Hillmon delivered, notching six points in two minutes. With her help, the Wolverines closed the third quarter with an 8-0 run of their own, re-establishing the lead and putting an end to Oakland’s upset bid.
Runs are a normal part of basketball. For various reasons, practically every team will go through stretches where the shots just aren’t falling. On Sunday, physical and emotional fatigue likely came into play for Michigan, as it was coming off of an overtime win against Syracuse just three nights prior.
“That was a really tough recovery after Thursday,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “I knew that today we were still kind of physically and emotionally exhausted and that it was gonna be a little bit of a grind, but we figured out a way to do it and it was a great victory.”
The key to surviving these scoring droughts lies in damage control. When the Wolverines go through stretches where they struggle to score points, they need to rely on their strong defense, hit a couple easy layups or make substitutions to give their starters a rest and allow fresh players a chance to make a difference.
On Sunday, it was Hillmon who snapped the Grizzlies’ run with two layups and two free throws. Limiting the damage becomes a lot easier when Michigan relies on its leading scorer to pick up easy baskets when they desperately need them.
“I don’t even know her numbers, but I know they’re high,” said sophomore guard Amy Dilk. “Every day we try to get the ball to Naz and let her do her work — especially if it’s one-on-one, they can’t handle that.”
But the Wolverines can’t always count on Hillmon to provide that spark — especially since she is currently nursing a minor ankle injury. They’ll have to get it from some other options down the stretch, and with a lot of players seeing significant playing time so far this year, the prospects seem pretty good.
Michigan’s freshmen in particular provide great scoring options off the bench. Guard Michelle Sidor has been capable from three so far, shooting 13-for-33 — the most makes on the team. She has not been afraid to shoot the ball in her various appearances this season, and her high-energy style of play makes her a great spark off the bench when shots aren’t falling.
Center Izabel Varejão has also been a solid change of pace as a substitute. Her 6-foot-4 frame makes her incredibly difficult to guard in the post, and she’s sunk a pair of threes this year as well. If she can continue to develop her post game and cut back on turnovers, she’ll be a reliable weapon when the starters are struggling to score points.
It’s not just the freshmen, either. Junior guard Priscilla Smeenge and sophomore guard Danielle Rauch both played meaningful minutes on Sunday, demonstrating the Wolverines’ depth and providing Barnes Arico with even more options when the team needs a spark.
“We’re only as strong as our weakest link,” Smeenge said. “I feel like our 11th person and whoever’s coming off the bench can do a really good job of contributing”
Michigan will need those contributions from the bench even more as the season progresses. Its opponents will go on runs — after all, they’re just part of the game — and it will have to hope that its depth can continue to produce in high-pressure situations.