Slow starts have been a common theme for the Michigan women’s basketball team to start the season. But strong defense forcing turnovers has also been a constant, allowing the Wolverines to recover. And against South Dakota in the semifinals of the Battle 4 Atlantis, those themes were evident yet again.
In a rematch of the 2022 NCAA Sweet 16 in which Michigan triumphed en route to its first Elite Eight berth in program history, the Coyotes attempted to avenge their loss Sunday as both teams looked to advance to the Battle 4 Atlantis final.
But once again, the Wolverines came out on top.
Michigan (4-0 overall) adhered to its defensive strengths to counteract the slow start and minimized its weaknesses to ultimately defeat South Dakota (3-2), 70-52. After struggling early on, the Wolverines played cleanly in the final three quarters, advancing to Monday’s tournament final against No. 23 Ole Miss.
Committing five first quarter turnovers and shooting below 30%, Michigan couldn’t seem to break through the Coyotes’ defense early on despite playing well in its own defensive end.
But the Wolverines didn’t let their slow start hinder their performance for the remainder of the game.
Michigan nearly doubled its shooting percentage and went into halftime with a 33-24 lead. Leading that success was graduate forward Taylor Williams, who scored eight points and grabbed five rebounds in the second quarter alone. She racked up 19 points, 18 rebounds and five steals in the entire game, completing her first double-double of the season.
“It was nice to have Taylor Williams on our side tonight,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “I’ve been coaching for a really long time, and that might have been one of the most unbelievable rebounding efforts that I’ve ever seen. … She has a nose for the basketball, gets the rebound and flies into transition so she can score. She’s just a dynamic, dynamic player.”
The Wolverines maintained their lead in the third quarter with a strong defensive performance, generating a 7-2 turnover margin in that time. While the sloppiness displayed in the first quarter didn’t drag into the rest of the game, Michigan’s robust defense remained.
Foul trouble also hindered South Dakota’s performance as Michigan drew numerous offensive fouls. Coyote guard Grace Larkins — who averaged 17.5 points and eight rebounds last season — accumulated four fouls by the middle of the third quarter. Without her presence on the court, South Dakota struggled to produce offensively. The rest of the Coyotes failed to make up for the lost productivity from Larkins.
Michigan forced 25 turnovers throughout the game and committed just 10, almost five fewer than its season average of 14.7 per game. While it turned the ball over five times in the first quarter alone, the Wolverines played the ensuing three quarters relatively cleanly.
“It was kind of a slow start offensively, but I thought we established ourselves on the defensive and rebounding,” Barnes Arico said. “We also really took them out of what they wanted to do and got Larkins in some early foul trouble which helped.”
With all the added turnovers — both forced by the Wolverines and self-induced by the Coyotes — in addition to South Dakota’s foul trouble, Michigan bolstered its chemistry and performance to overcome a slow first quarter.
“We were forcing those turnovers which led to better offense, and I think that we moved the ball a lot better,” junior guard Jordan Hobbs said. “We were reading off each other and I think our chemistry is building every single day.”
Capitalizing on the Coyotes’ errors, Michigan’s advantage continued to grow in the fourth quarter. Entering the final quarter of play, all the Wolverines needed to do was lock down on defense — and they did by allowing just 13 points.
The Wolverines delivered following a slow start offensively and a rekindling on defense, a consistent trend thus far in the season. With a spot in the championship game of the Battle 4 Atlantis on the line, Michigan showed the offensive and defensive strengths that it will need if it hopes to win the tournament.