Michigan desperately needed a win.
Coming into its final game of the regular season, the Michigan women’s basketball team (14-4 overall, 9-4 Big Ten) was on a two-game losing streak. But against Northwestern (13-7, 11-7) the Wolverines turned the tide in a gritty win, 63-58.
From the get-go, like in its previous two games, Michigan struggled to find its offensive rhythm. Unlike the last two games, 3-point shooting proved to be the key in the first quarter, helping the Wolverines build up an early lead they’d need down the stretch. Throughout the season Michigan has been cold from behind the 3-point line, but tonight junior forward Hailey Brown and junior guard Amy Dilk turned up the heat. Going 3-for-4 in the first quarter from behind the arc, Dilk ended the night with 12 points.
“I think in any game, in order to be successful, you got to be able to knock down those outside shots as well as play an inside game,” Hailey Brown said. “So today, the shots that we did have really helped us, and forced them to make decisions.”
Despite the key 3-point shooting in the first, foul trouble once again plagued Michigan: Brown picked up two fouls early, forcing a substitute. With key players on the bench for the majority of quarters, it leaves gaps in the cohesive offensive unit between the five starters the Wolverines try to utilize. At the end of the first, four of the five starters had at least one foul.
Then things went cold for Michigan. Michigan struggled against Northwestern’s aggressive defense, turning the ball over five times in the first five minutes of the second quarter. In the second quarter, without Brown, the Wolverines dropped into a zone trying to contain the paint. Led by Northwestern guard Lindsey Pulliam’s two threes, the Wildcats opened the quarter on a 7-0 scoring run.
The spell was finally broken by Dilk, sinking a 3-pointer with under four minutes left in the second quarter — the Wolverines’ first point of the quarter. She hit another shot from behind the arc just minutes later, building the Wolverines’ lead to five heading into the locker room.
The momentum continued into the third quarter, where the Wolverines’ 8-0 run built up a lead they’d need in the fourth quarter against an aggressive Northwestern offense.
Junior forward Naz Hillmon came alive alongside graduate guard Akienreh Johnson. Going to the free-throw line five times in the third, Johnson knocked down all 10 shots, contributing to the Wolverines’ growing lead. Johnson’s third quarter performance contributed heavily to the win as she’d be one of three players to score in double digits.
“Just getting my touch, getting my confidence back,” Johnson said. “You know it’s been a while since I really scored, like had a lot of points in a game. Then I started getting to the free-throw line, seeing the ball going in a few times, getting my confidence.”
Facilitating offensive production from the outside, junior wing Leigha Brown added another weapon to Michigan’s offense in the third quarter. Adding three key assists, Brown — normally a high scorer for Michigan — contributed her strengths as a passer to the game, taking a backseat from scoring. Her passing ability opened up the post, giving Hillmon room to work, something missing in the Wolverines’ last two losses.
Despite the dominant third quarter, a scoring drought plagued the Wolverines late in the fourth quarter. It was eventually broken by a 3-pointer from Hailey Brown — just after a vital block on the defensive end. Michigan’s defensive effort continued to lock-up the paint, forcing Northwestern to take outside shots it wouldn’t make.
The balanced scoring attack Michigan displayed throughout eventually led to the win. With three players scoring in double-digits, the Wolverines found multiple outlets from behind the arc and in the paint. Johnson went 13-for-14 from the free-throw line, Dilk went 3-for-4 from behind the 3-point line and Hillmon dominated the post with 19 points.
“I think when (Dilk) and Leigha (Brown), and Naz (Hillmon) and (Johnson) and Hailey (Brown) are clicking together, we are at our best and it was great,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said.
Since the two-week shut-down last month, especially in their last two games, the Wolverines have struggled on the offensive end. Hillmon took on the burden of scoring, but couldn’t finish games by herself. Maryland and Iowa both effectively shut Hillmon down, forcing other players to score, which they couldn’t. Tonight, Michigan flipped the script, creating offensive production through all five players on the court.
Effectively ending the two-game losing streak, Michigan will head into the Big Ten Tournament with another win under their belt. Tonight’s win has ensured a double bye for the Wolverines, giving them time to practice after a long stretch of limited practice and multiple games.