WICHITA, Kan. — With the clock ticking down in the Michigan women’s basketball team’s first ever Elite Eight, junior guard Maddie Nolan, standing on the block, looked across the lane to senior forward Naz Hillmon. The two shared a look, Hillmon told Nolan to take a deep breath and they both steeled themselves for the next play.
Down by nine and struggling to overcome a late onslaught from Louisville, both players knew the situation was grim. Michigan’s chances at a Final Four berth — the first in program history — were quickly slipping away.
In their first trip to the Elite Eight in program history, the third-seeded Wolverines (25-7 overall) fell to the first-seeded Cardinals (29-4), 62-50. In a crushing loss to end its historic season on Monday night, Michigan struggled to break through against Louisville’s stifling defense in spite of its own defensive strength.
“We knew it would be a game of runs and we had our share of runs,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “They did what they do best. They forced us into some turnovers which resulted in some easy points for them.”
A defensive battle from the beginning, both teams were hard-pressed to score. The Wolverines zeroed in on stopping the Cardinals from running their fast-paced transition offense. Lousiville jumped out to an early lead, but were continually tested by Michigan’s pesky defense — a narrative that repeated itself multiple times down the stretch.
On the offensive end, the Wolverines struggled to score throughout the first quarter. With the Cardinals dropping into their full-court press after nearly every made basket, they forced Michigan into a few crucial early turnovers.
The Wolverines tried to find their offense both inside and out, looking to Hillmon and senior forward Emily Kiser in the paint early on. But the Wolverines struggled to find the bottom of the net, starting cold behind the 3-point line — until junior guard Maddie Nolan checked in.
Cutting Louisville’s growing lead with two 3-pointers late in the first quarter, Nolan was the offensive difference-maker early on. With the Cardinals having to leave their player to help on Nolan, Kiser and Hillmon found more space in the post. Ending the quarter by taking a charge, Nolan continued to keep Louisville at bay.
The defensive battle continued as both teams fought to gain control of the game. Forcing the Cardinals into a shot clock violation with under 30 seconds left in the half, the Wolverines had a chance to take the lead for the second time. Instead, a turnover and a missed defensive rebound allowed the Cardinals to extend their lead, forcing Michigan to enter the locker room down by three.
Opening the second half facing a renewed Louisville full-court press, the Wolverines fell back into their early pattern of turnovers. A scoring drought plagued Michigan throughout the third quarter, allowing the Cardinals to continue their balanced scoring attack from all five starters.
“I think their pressure, and that’s something that was obviously a concern of ours, really wore us down,” Barnes Arico said. “… Once we settled down (offensively), they wore us down with their defensive pressure, which forced turnovers.”
Drawing fouls in the paint, the Wolverines’ main source of points in the third quarter on the free-throw line until Nolan drained another 3-pointer from the corner — once again cutting into Louisville’s lead. Michigan continued to pester the Cardinals, refusing to be buried, ending the quarter down by just two points.
Starting the fourth quarter once again with a turnover, the Wolverines quickly erased the progress they’d made at the end of the third — back-to-back turnovers led to quick transition buckets for Louisville.
Then, senior wing Leigha Brown stepped off the floor for the final time just under two minutes into the fourth quarter. Brown, who’s struggled with a lower-leg injury all season, had seemingly re-aggravated her injury. With Brown relegated to the bench, Michigan struggled to find any scoring outside the paint.
“Really, her tank was empty,” Barnes Arico said. “She couldn’t go anymore. … When you don’t have a dynamic guard, like Leigha Brown, arguably our best guard on the roster, that really hurts.”
With just under three minutes left in regulation, the Wolverines faced a two point differential. But failing to execute, missing multiple shots and turning the ball over, Michigan allowed the Cardinals to extend their lead. As Louisville continued to grow its advantage throughout the remaining minutes, Michigan could only watch as its hopes at a Final Four were dashed.
“I don’t think the final score is indicative of how that game went,” senior guard Danielle Rauch said. “How hard we fought and how much we put them on the ropes and we applied pressure as much as we could. Some things didn’t go our way. But I think that’s important to recognize.”
Ending their season in the program’s first-ever Elite Eight, the Wolverines made history.
Just not as much as they wanted.