Prior to Sunday, the Michigan women’s basketball team had lost just two of its six games without senior forward Kayla Robbins — both to No. 18 Northwestern, both by single digits.
Without sophomore guard Danielle Rauch, who suffered a hand injury in practice three games after Robbins went down, the Wolverines had won two of three.
But with the absence of Robbins and Rauch, almost every other player on the roster had to play significantly more minutes than they had before. While many players were able to handle playing more for a while, fatigue clearly hurt Michigan in a 62-41 loss to Rutgers on Sunday.
Junior forward Hailey Brown played over 35 minutes in three of the first six games without Robbins, and only played less in the others due to foul trouble. Prior to Robbins’ injury, she rarely ever played 30 minutes. But despite playing more than she ever had, Brown was just as effective, shooting 37 percent from 3-point range over this stretch.
Senior guard Akienreh Johnson averaged 33.5 minutes over the six games, a six minute increase over her per-game average with Robbins and Rauch healthy. And with her uptick in minutes, she was playing her best basketball of the season, averaging 13.8 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, all while guarding opponents’ biggest perimeter threat.
“My role has stepped up where I have to bring more energy,” Johnson said after a Jan. 26 win over Rutgers. “I have to bring the steals that (Robbins) got, bring the charges that she got, defend the best player like she did, get offensive rebounds like she did.”
But Barnes Arico knew that the players wouldn’t always be able to handle playing so many minutes as well as they had, and she would have to figure out how to keep them fresh.
“We tried to utilize some timeouts tonight,” Barnes Arico said after a Feb. 6 win over Purdue. “I think we made them stay seated until the end of the timeout. Sometimes we run out there a little bit quicker. But tonight we were saying ‘Nope. Stay here until that horn blows and rest your legs.’ ”
While Brown and Johnson both stepped up over the six-game stretch and the Wolverines were playing as well as they had all season, Sunday against the Scarlet Knights the injuries and fatigue finally caught up with them.
Brown scored just four points on 1-for-9 shooting — 1-for-6 from deep — in 31 minutes. Johnson scored just three points on 1-for-8 shooting in 36 minutes. Behind these performances, Michigan played its worst game of the season. It shot just 30 percent from the floor and got out-rebounded by Rutgers, issues only magnified by a less-than-full-strength Naz Hillmon totaling five points and four rebounds.
“There’s definitely a fatigue,” Barnes Arico said Sunday. “When you look at the minutes that we’ve accumulated this week, and haven’t really had a day off, and I just think it was the wear of Rutgers too. It’s a credit to them, too. We couldn’t get anything to get going offensively, and then rebounding, they really dominated on the glass, which last time we beat them on the glass.”
The Wolverines could have used Robbins’s ability to get tough baskets when not much else is working for the offense. They could have used Rauch’s energy to motivate them at a time when they didn’t have much. For the first time all season, it was clear that Michigan missed Robbins and Rauch.
Going forward, while Michigan’s schedule gets easier, the team doesn’t have much time to recover between games. With just two days off between Sunday’s loss and a Wednesday night game against Illinois, the Wolverines don’t have much time to rest up and get their legs back. Hillmon doesn’t have much time to get back to 100 percent.
When Robbins and Rauch went down, Michigan knew fatigue would become an issue. For a while, the Wolverines won despite it, but Sunday showed that they can’t always rely on players like Brown and Johnson to play nearly 40 minutes of high-quality basketball.
And if Michigan’s season is going to end in a tournament bid, it is going to come despite a lack of depth. Because with Robbins and Rauch not coming back, the problem is likely not going away any time soon.