The No. 4 Michigan women’s basketball team strolled into East Lansing on Thursday riding an eight-game win streak. The Wolverines’ historic season seemingly gained momentum each game: wins against ranked conference opponents like Iowa, Indiana, Ohio State and Maryland no longer seemed like achievements, but expectations. Michigan was on top of the world.
And then, it fell — not once, but twice.
Thursday’s shocking loss against Michigan State was swiftly followed by the Wolverines’ second loss against an unranked opponent in just a week, this time in Evanston on Sunday against Northwestern.
The Wildcats beat Michigan in a thrilling double-overtime matchup, 71-69, appearing to halt the momentum that the Wolverines had accumulated over the past month.
“They’re crushed,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said after Sunday’s loss. “It’s tough in the locker room. This is a group that cares so much, and has so much invested.”
Michigan played shorthanded; senior wing Leigha Brown wasn’t on the floor due to a lower leg injury. Her on-court presence adds so much for the Wolverines — and the void that filled its place proved detrimental.
Against Mississippi State in November, Brown’s impact was in full force. Michigan entered the half up three, and Brown took over from there. She poured in nine points on 4-for-5 shooting in the fourth quarter in what turned into a 16 point victory for the Wolverines.
So, what went wrong the past two games?
Well, Michigan has made its fair share of mistakes.
The last two games were unequivocally poor performances. The Wolverines’ showing against the Wildcats was sloppy. They turned the ball over 21 times and got outscored in the paint. While turnovers have been a weakness all season, Michigan has found a way to win in spite of it.
Losing the points in the paint battle, though, is an irregularity. And its cause is surprisingly simple: the Wolverines had to deal with foul trouble.
Senior forward Naz Hillmon picked up her second foul with three minutes left in the first quarter. She was instantly subbed out and sat for the remainder of the first half. Hillmon played just 33 minutes in a game that went to two overtimes.
But Michigan’s foul trouble extended past Hillmon. Sophomore forward Cameron Williams — Hillmon’s backup — picked up a pair of fouls herself before the first quarter ended.
The result: a wonky rotation in the Wolverines’ frontcourt for the remainder of the first half. Like ill-fitting puzzle pieces, Michigan cobbled together a lineup to replace Hillmon’s MVP-caliber production. Junior center Izabel Varejão saw the floor more than usual, playing for the majority of the second quarter. Freshman wing Jordan Hobbs and sophomore forward Elise Stuck both saw an increase in minutes as well.
Even scraping the bottom of its rotation, Michigan managed to keep the game tied by halftime. Ultimately, it couldn’t finish the job, even with its starters back in the second half and two overtime periods. Every time the Wolverines needed a big play, it felt like they couldn’t find one.
The glaring reason: Brown’s absence.
Over the course of the season, every time it felt like Michigan’s lead had been slipping, Brown was the one to come up clutch. At Ohio State in January, Brown expanded the lead from 10 to 15 in the final minute before the half. She came out of the break and further expanded the lead — to the point of no return — with her shooting, going 6-for-10 from the field en route to 16 points.
Against Baylor in December, it was Brown that came up big as well. After Hillmon fouled out at the end of regulation, Brown took over the offense in overtime. Her pair of big shots propelled Michigan to its first top-five win in program history.
Brown has come up big time and time again. And when the Wolverines needed her against Northwestern, there was nothing she could do. The heartbeat of Michigan’s offense was sidelined.
Brown’s absence was equally evident in the loss to Michigan State. Hillmon showed up, scoring 27 points, but the Wolverines’ role players weren’t as consistent. And that’s exactly what Brown has been over the course of the season — consistent. She’s averaged 14.8 points per game while shooting 46.9% from the field and 36.7% from three.
“We lost an all-conference player for the second game, who’s our leading guard scorer and is a dynamic player,” Barnes Arico said after the Wolverines lost to Michigan State on Thursday. “I think we’re trying to figure out where we can make up 15 points a game.”
Brown’s consistency and big-play ability are irreplaceable. Despite Michigan’s frontcourt rotational players stepping up against Northwestern, and Hillmon’s phenomenal performance against Michigan State, they dropped both games.
The Wolverines didn’t play well in either game, and it’s going to cost them. Their hopes of a Big Ten title have been reduced to fantasies. What looked like a looming reality just a week ago has since been thrown out the window. But Michigan is still an elite team, and anyone who says otherwise is overreacting.
When Brown returns, the Wolverines will be back at full strength. And when they are, they can match up with anyone. Brown’s performances — paired with a resume of high-profile wins — speak for themselves.
Come tournament time, Michigan should be healthy. And after letting a regular-season title slip away, it’ll be hungry for hardware.