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The No. 22 Michigan women’s basketball team looked to continue its hot start to the season against South Florida in the 2022 Gulf Coast Invitational. The Wolverines entered the game undefeated, powered by four straight 20-point performances from graduate forward Emily Kiser.

And they remained undefeated, as Michigan (6-0 overall) clawed its way to victory over USF (7-1) despite an inconsistent performance, 63-58.

“This was our first true test of the season,” fifth-year guard Leigha Brown said. “… Our toughness, our grit and our ability to make big plays and hit big shots at the end was definitely a deciding factor.”

The Wolverines struggled offensively throughout the game, with only Brown and sophomore guard Laila Phelia scoring in the first quarter. Phelia’s points all came from layups or pull-up jumpers as she made her first four shots to keep them engaged on the offensive end.

However, the Michigan defense struggled early to contain USF guard Sammie Puisis. Puisis took advantage of aggressive Wolverine close-outs, pump-faking and driving in for easy pull-up jumpers to notch 11 of USF’s 17 first quarter points.

Michigan struggled to move the ball effectively against the Bulls’ defense for the first 13 minutes of play. Then Kiser got going in the paint, scoring six straight points.

From there, the Wolverines stepped up defensively, and held the Bulls scoreless in the final three minutes and 14 seconds of the second quarter.

The first minutes out of the break were back-and-forth and neither team gained separation as the Bulls attacked the lane and converted on multiple layup attempts.

Brown continued to fuel the Wolverine offense, finishing with 23 points. She fed Kiser in the paint with a bounce pass, who then pivoted into contact on a reverse layup, drawing the foul and converting her two free throws.

Then Michigan went cold. The Bulls capitalized on a dry spell from the Wolverines — who made only one field goal in the final 6:27 — to take a two-point lead into the fourth quarter.

“I think that really showed how impressive and how important our defensive stops are,” Brown said. “I think our ability to get stops and get rebounds off of that and push in transition and be able to get easy looks that way is super important. Continuing to play with that kind of toughness and just know that our offense will come eventually.”

But the Bulls built upon that defensive momentum with a quick five points to begin the fourth quarter, extending their lead to seven — their largest of the game. 

Rather than fold, the Wolverines came up with defensive stops on three straight possessions. Brown and Phelia attacked the lane and drew fouls, converting their attempts at the charity stripe to cut the lead to three.

Later, Brown found Nolan in the corner for three — her first after going 0-for-5 from deep. The next possession, Williams snatched the rebound on a miss, pivoted and sent a pass to Nolan in the corner — who sunk another 3-pointer to give Michigan its first lead of the second half.

But that lead didn’t last long. The Wolverines surrendered an offensive rebound and committed a foul, sending the Bulls to the line. They converted, regaining the lead with three-and-a-half minutes to go.

The teams traded misses until an outlet pass found Nolan in the corner again, who sunk another 3-pointer to regain the lead.

“She started off missing a couple, but all of us and the whole entire coaching staff has all the confidence in the world that she’s gonna step up and hit those shots,” Brown said. “My job as point guard is to just continue to find her and she was able to really hit those shots in crunch time.”

After Nolan’s 3-pointers, Michigan needed its defense to step up so it could build a cushion. It did, forcing a shot-clock violation and regaining possession.

Up by one, Kiser inbounded the ball to Brown, who was immediately fouled. Brown — just 2-of-5 from the charity stripe —  could either extend the lead to three or give USF an opportunity to take the lead.

“I struggled (at the line) for the majority of the night, especially in the second half,” Brown said. “(I was) just trying to clear my head, and at that point, it’s muscle memory.”

Brown inhaled, exhaled and sank both shots, forcing the Bulls to burn their final timeout with 18.2 seconds remaining.

Michigan — with three fouls to give — elected to foul immediately. USF missed a 3-pointer off of the inbounds pass, and Williams came up with a crucial defensive board. Fouled immediately by Mendjiadeu, Williams strode to the line.

Calmly, she knocked down her two free throws to secure the victory.

While the Wolverines struggled, they were ultimately able to pull out the win, thanks to Nolan’s 3-point heroics and clutch free throw shooting in the final seconds.