INDIANAPOLIS — With six minutes remaining in the first quarter, sophomore forward Naz Hillmon walked to the bench after picking up her second foul.
In the eight minutes that followed, she watched Michigan’s three-point lead vanish. A game that looked like an easy win to open the Big Ten Tournament quickly turned into a disaster as Nebraska climbed to a 14-point lead. The Wolverines’ offense looked dysfunctional, as virtually every possession ended in a turnover or forced shot.
Then Hillmon re-entered, and the game changed again. Suddenly, Michigan couldn’t miss. It cut the deficit to eight by halftime and regained the lead four minutes into the third quarter. The Wolverines led the rest of the way, winning 81-75.
The story of the game was fairly simple: when Hillmon played, Michigan dominated. When she sat, Nebraska took over.
“Being on the bench allowed me to see what was working and what wasn’t,” Hillmon said. “And (I just tried) to change what wasn’t working and emphasize what was working.”
That’s not to say Hillmon was the whole team. Two of the Wolverines’ other bigs — junior forward Hailey Brown, and freshman center Izabel Varejão — each finished with double-digit points. They’re both solid players in their own right, but when they played alongside Hillmon, their games elevated.
As the first big off the bench, Varejão played through most of Nebraska’s first-half run. During that stretch, the team relied on her as a primary scorer in the paint, and she delivered well enough to keep Michigan in the game.
With Hillmon back in the second half, she and Brown continued to produce offensively in more of a supporting role. They each created their own one-two punch with Hillmon — Brown with her 3-point shooting, and Varejão with her presence in the paint — and shot a combined 5-for-7 in the second half.
“It’s hard to scout that, because they’re so different,” Hillmon said. “At one point, you have to be in the paint, worried about the sky hook, and then the other time, you have to worry about the transition three. … It’s a really hard matchup for the defense, switching between those two, because you have to think a lot about what those two do.”
But Hillmon impacted the game most with her offensive rebounding. Her Big Ten-leading 4.2 offensive rebounds per game can make a difference in any contest, but her six offensive rebounds Thursday were especially crucial in the six-point win. It showed on the stat sheet — the Wolverines finished with 24 second-chance points.
“Rebounding was our number one goal,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “We knew we would have an advantage on the boards, and that was really key for us.”
Added Hillmon: “Sometimes we say that our best offense is just getting the ball on the rim. Any of us could go get the rebound.”
All year, the Wolverines have leaned on Hillmon for offense during droughts, and Thursday, it looked like that won’t change any time soon. Even more, it became clearer that they will need her to stay out of foul trouble if they want to pull off any March upsets.
If she can’t, then Michigan’s postseason run looks poised to be pretty short.