With just over three minutes remaining in the first half, freshman guard Ari Wiggins lofted an inbounds pass from the sideline to senior forward Emily Kiser — who was wide open under the basket. Kiser caught the ball and pump-faked, but her fake was ineffective. When she went up with a real shot, Louisville’s Olivia Cochran brought her hand down on the ball for a thunderous block.
Cochran’s block on Kiser encapsulated a showing in which the Cardinals dominated the Wolverines in almost every facet of the game, especially in the first half. At the root of Michigan’s first loss of the season was an inability to respond to Louisville’s physical style of play.
“They’re a big team. I guess it’s just when you play a Power Five they’re all going to be like that,” Kiser said. “I mean, I think we embrace the physicality. It definitely makes it more of a challenge, but that’s what we’re going to see in the Big Ten.”
It became apparent early in the game that the refs were going to allow a physical style of play. Two minutes into the game, senior guard Danielle Rauch passed the ball to senior forward Naz Hillmon in the post. Hillmon got tangled up with her defender — who was giving her no breathing room — as the pass was incoming. She couldn’t grab the ball, and it resulted in a turnover with no whistle blown.
Just before the intermission, Hillmon found the ball in her hands and was looking to create offense for the Wolverines. Hillmon charged at the hoop, and spun past her defender into the lane. Another Louisville defender was waiting, though, and stripped the ball from Hillmon.
Normally, Hillmon is the safety valve to the Wolverine offense. When they have a hard time scoring, they give her the ball and let her go to work. But with both double teams and Louisville’s physicality being thrown at her all night, Hillmon couldn’t produce like she normally does — finishing with just 12 points.
“They were sending multiple people at Naz and causing some traffic inside,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “And we couldn’t really hit any outside shots, which didn’t then open things up for her.”
The Cardinals’ physicality also affected the battle on the glass. The Wolverines were outrebounded 22-10 in the first half, allowing Louisville to grab eight offensive rebounds. This discrepancy led to Michigan falling behind quickly, heading into halftime down 39-15.
The Wolverines continued to struggle with the Cardinals’ physicality throughout the second half. Early in the third quarter, Cochran caught the ball in the post with Kiser on her back. Cochran spun around Kiser, throwing her to the side in the process. With Kiser out of the way, Cochran had a clear path to hoop and layed it up for an easy two points.
Michigan didn’t give up, though. In the second half, the Wolverines competed much more effectively on the boards, managing to grab 16 rebounds to Louisville’s 17.
Michigan also brought an intensity to the floor that many teams trailing by 25 simply can’t muster. Early in the fourth quarter, a wayward inbounds pass from the baseline was thrown to Kiser in the paint. The pass wasn’t clean, but Kiser dove for the ball in an effort to regain possession. After failing to get to the ball, Rauch also dove for it. Such intensity in a game where the Wolverines, at this point, had no chance to win is a promising sign for the future.
“They were not going to quit. There was no quit in them,” Barnes Arico said. “They both have had exceptional starts to their senior season, so I thought tonight was another step for them to play against some really good competition and figure out what we need to do to get better.”
While it still wasn’t a good half of basketball — especially for their lofty standards — Michigan didn’t give up. It fought hard and improved on a first half in which it was dominated.
If the Wolverines can retain that fighting spirit, they have every opportunity to be more ready for physical opposition as they charge toward Big Ten play.