From the first possession, senior forward Kayla Robbins wanted to make the game hers. Answering an early 3-pointer from Nebraska, she drove to the basket and drew a foul. Robbins made the first free-throw and missed the second — but corralled her own offensive rebound.
The game plan Sunday was clear: Get the ball to Robbins. It worked, she was set up for another monster game.
And then, on that same possession, she found herself open behind the defense, a clear look at the basket. The ball flew over the defender and Robbins caught it in the air. She landed awkwardly, a shout ringing out — her right knee buckling.
Just like that, the Michigan women’s basketball team lost its best defender, its second-leading scorer and one of its most capable rebounders. Her ACL torn, the senior’s breakout season was finished. Her career, over.
“Unfortunately, I have suffered an ACL tear that will keep me out for the remainder of my senior season,” Robbins said on Twitter Tuesday evening. “As much as it pains me that I will never get to play in a Michigan jersey again, I know that God has a plan for me and my future.”
From the very start of the season, she established what would come in her first year as a consistent starter. Scoring 17 points and playing 35 minutes in the season-opener against Western Michigan, she led the team in scoring while locking down any offensive threat she guarded.
“(Robbins) goes so hard, and she’s gone so hard throughout her career that she hits the wall,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said after that game. “She does such a great job and then she doesn’t sustain, so I really challenged her, and Kayla and I spend a lot of time talking about this, ‘Kayla you’ve gotta be able to push through and continue because we’re gonna need you to play more minutes than you’ve ever played before in your life.’ ”
Despite Barnes Arico’s concerns, Robbins didn’t show signs of slowing down, displaying her ability to keep up energy regardless of minutes or opponent.
On Dec. 5 against Syracuse, Robbins proved she was a force to be reckoned with, scoring 23 points — a huge chunk of those coming in the fourth quarter and overtime. Robbins, almost single-handedly, saved that game for the Wolverines, suffocating defenders and diving on loose balls, all with four fouls.
Entering league play, Robbins’ name was arguably listed right below sophomore forward Naz Hillmon’s on opposing coaches’ scouting report. That didn’t stop her from playing big minutes and contributing big point and rebounding totals.
For Michigan, though, Robbins’ biggest contributions came as a leader on the court. One of two senior captains, the team looked up to her as an example of what to strive for.
“Kayla brings a spark every single day,” junior forward Hailey Brown said after a Dec. 31 victory over Penn State. “Every single day at practice as well, which does not go unnoticed. She’s willing to sacrifice her body for anything and she’s very aggressive on ball defense and she’s always there for help side. She always brings that extra energy and also pushes us to play at that next level.”
Now, sidelined for the rest of the season, Robbins will have to transition into a leader off the court, where her voice will lead the way instead of her play. The Wolverines will also face a difficult transition on the court, with nothing to compensate for the loss of experience.
“It’s just going to be difficult without an experienced person and that’s part of the worker she is,” senior guard Akienreh Johnson said. “She’s just not going to be on the court, so my leadership role is definitely going to have to change.
“Mine is going to have to change, but also everybody else — (Hillmon) is going to have to step up, be a more vocal leader. (sophomore guard) Amy (Dilk) is going to have to step up, I think (sophomore guard) Danielle (Rauch) did a great job during that game of being a vocal leader.”
Replacing Robbins’ on-court production, similar to filling her voice, will also be by committee. Michigan’s bench has struggled to make a significant impact on games, and while in Sunday’s matchup Rauch played a solid 31 minutes filling the void, more players will need to produce in bigger ways.
“(Robbins) is not the type of person you can replace, like there’s no one on our team that can replace (Robbins), but I think all, collectively, we’re going to have to step up,” Rauch said. “I think that a lot of the time when I’ve gotten in, I looked to like pass a lot and I think I’m going to have to start being a little more aggressive in that aspect.”
While Rauch will have to step up, presumably replacing her starting spot, so will Robbins’ fellow starters like Johnson, Brown and Dilk. Johnson and Dilk will try and match her potent ability to drive to the lane, while Brown will need to try and space the floor like Robbins did.
Sophomore forward Emily Kiser and freshman center Izabel Varejão will also play big roles in the paint in future games — with Kiser’s smooth, 49.1 percent shooting percentage a plus, spacing out the court and giving Hillmon more room to work.
There were glimpses in Sunday’s game of the team coming together to try and replace Robbins — Johnson and Brown had some of their highest scoring games in recent memory with Brown nearly doubling her average point total and Johnson scoring four more than her average. Varejão looked dangerous for the first time in months for a short spurt in the second quarter, scoring eight.
But it still wasn’t enough to procure a road win in Lincoln, and for Michigan to achieve its goals this season, those players will need to do even more.
The Wolverines lost one of their most explosive players, someone who can — and has — changed the outcomes of games for them.
That, though, wasn’t the thought running through Barnes Arico’s mind as she turned Robbins over, fear and worry plastered on her face, watching her captain writhe in pain. It wasn’t going through the team’s mind as they watched from afar, hands over mouths.
It wasn’t in Johnson’s mind as she turned back from the timeout huddle, looking once, twice and thrice as she watched her roommate helped down the tunnel.