In Indianapolis, revenge is on the table for the Michigan women’s basketball team.
First, on Thursday, it will face off against Nebraska in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament. The Cornhuskers beat the Wolverines in their only meeting this year on Jan. 19, in Lincoln, 74-71.
That game, though, is better remembered for what happened in the first two minutes than the score at the end of it. Senior forward Kayla Robbins — the Wolverines’ second-leading scorer and rebounder, best defender — tore her ACL on the third play, ending her career. Michigan, shell-shocked, kept it close thanks to junior forward Hailey Brown’s five 3-pointers.
But the player Robbins was supposed to guard — Hannah Whitish — had an even better day, scoring 20 points. None of her points came from the free-throw line, but 20 of the Cornhuskers’ points did, the other factor leading to Michigan’s demise.
“They were able to draw fouls early in the second half and that really hurt us,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said after the game. “Took us out of what we were doing and changed the momentum. They seemed to be more of the aggressor in the second half.”
Thursday, Nebraska won’t have home-court advantage. It will try to draw fouls again, the same way Michigan State and then-No. 22 Indiana have in the past two weeks. With such a thin lineup due to injuries, getting Michigan in foul trouble has proven to be an effective strategy at slowing down its offense and opening up opportunities to exploit a young rotation.
“What I need to work on is defense,” freshman guard Maddie Nolan said after Sunday’s loss to Indiana. “Sometimes I think teams try to attack me, and that can’t be the case going forward if we’re gonna try and go far in the tournament.”
Still, Nebraska is a much less talented team than the Wolverines, and now that they’ve had the chance to adjust to life without Robbins they can get revenge on a team that beat them two months ago in a game remembered more for an injury than a score.
Should Michigan move on as expected, another chance for revenge presents itself: No. 11 Northwestern.
“Our kids will want an opportunity to play against them in the Big Ten Tournament, for sure,” Barnes Arico said on Feb.13, after a second loss to Northwestern this season. “I think our kids will have a lot of confidence to play against them again.”
Though Michigan went 0-2 against a team predicted to host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, both games were hard-fought and ended close.
The first meeting the Wolverines got off to a horrid start, finding themselves down by seven after the first quarter. After fighting back, the contest ended up becoming the Lindsay Pulliam show and her 32 points led the way for the Wildcats.
She scored four in the second meeting. But an early injury to Michigan’s star player, sophomore Naz Hillmon, set the tone for a long night wrought with physical hardships for the Wolverines.
Freshman center Izabel Varejão hobbled around the last half of the game after hurting her ankle, freshman guard Maddie Nolan fouled out, senior guard Akienreh Johnson temporarily left the game after hurting her arm.
Yet, again, it was a close game. And Michigan could’ve won.
Northwestern will play the Wolverines tough, bumping Hillmon and the rest of the team at every opportunity. At the end of the night, every Michigan player will need to be iced down. But if it plays to its potential, if it plays its A-game, it will have a chance to win.
Ahead of the Wolverines lie two chances for revenge, to right their wrongs. If they show up and play the basketball they’re capable of playing, they have a chance to win their first two games. From there, anything goes.