MINNEAPOLIS — The No. 17 Michigan women’s basketball team had the ball where it wanted it to finish the game.
Fifth-year wing Leigha Brown caught the inbounds pass off a weak-side screen, put the ball on the ground and drove. The All-Big Ten First Teamer pulled up for the last-second shot with a chance to tie the game at 81 and send the Wolverines to overtime against No. 14 Ohio State.
But as the ball bounced off the backboard and fell to the ground while the Wolverines clamored for a foul call, Michigan’s chances against the Buckeyes dropped right along with it.
To set up that chance, however, Michigan made plays down the stretch. With 47 seconds remaining, senior guard Maddie Nolan sank a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to 81-79. Twenty-three seconds later, the Wolverines forced a turnover, stripping Buckeyes forward Cotie McMahon’s dribble mere feet away from their own basket.
“On the sideline, we called timeout, we had one timeout left,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “On the sideline out of bounds, we had just run a flare on the previous possession for Maddie, and Maddie had a shot. We ran that last week as well, so we were trying to get that look back again. But it got broken, and that’s when we made the pass.”
With 23.7 seconds left, the shot clock was off and the Wolverines had the ball out of bounds in front of their bench, with junior forward Elise Stuck set to inbound the ball. The play designed for Nolan fell apart, so she swung the ball to Stuck — a bench player once again on the court in the crucial final seconds.
Stuck drove, but her left-handed layup attempt was blocked out of bounds by McMahon with 10.3 seconds left. With the Wolverines out of timeouts, they turned to their most-trusted option, and the entire arena knew where the ball would go.
“I think we were thinking get the ball in Leigha’s hands,” graduate forward Emily Kiser said. “Maybe we should have gone to more of a screening action. They were kind of getting lost in that earlier in the game.”
Michigan’s inbounds plays found great success earlier in the game, the previous one resulting in a 73-72 advantage with 4:05 remaining. Sophomore guard Laila Phelia started on the block near Brown, who was inbounding the ball. She cut to the middle and set a screen for Stuck, then cut off a screen set by Kiser for an easy layup.
Instead, when Stuck set to inbound the ball in the final seconds, there weren’t cuts to the basket off of screens. Kiser set a weak-side screen for Brown to free her to catch the inbounds pass ball-side.
“She had the initial look, but she decided to put it on the ground,” Barnes Arico said. “I think she thought she was going to go to the basket and probably get the foul and-1. But coming off that, she was wide open coming off that screen.”
Michigan had five and-1 calls in its favor throughout the game, beginning with sophomore guard Jordan Hobbs converting a four-point play on its first possession and ending with Nolan’s three-point play with 6:02 remaining in the third quarter that brought the game within one point and forced an Ohio State timeout. The Wolverines went to the free throw line 21 times and were expecting a whistle if they drove on the final play.
“We were thinking get to the basket,” Kiser said. “They swallowed their whistle there at the end, so you’ve got to live with that. But take it at them, I think (was the plan).”
Brown caught the ball and drove through contact into the lane, but Ohio State guard Taylor Thierry tapped the ball out of Brown’s hands and into her face. At that point, Nolan was standing ready on the wing with an entire half of the court to herself. But Brown snatched it back and put up a layup that missed.
Snatching that rebound away from Thierry and Buckeyes forward Rebeka Mikulasikova — despite not getting the ball to Nolan — did keep Michigan’s hopes alive with nine seconds remaining. Brown dribbled and faked to create space, but an Ohio State triple team smothered the small gap she created. Brown got a shot off, but it clunked off the backboard and fell to the ground.
There was little doubt in the arena that Brown would be taking the final shot. After the game, Ohio State guard Taylor Thierry even said she thought the ball would go to Brown. She often put the Wolverines on her back, regularly willing them to victory — particularly in Phelia’s absence.
Friday afternoon, Michigan put the ball in the hands of Brown in clutch time, exactly where the Buckeyes knew it was going, and exactly where Wolverines wanted it to start the play.
The ball just didn’t end up where Michigan needed it.