INDIANAPOLIS — After losing to Nebraska on Jan. 4, where Michigan’s defense was inconsistent, it hoped to right the ship in a rematch in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals.
Once again, the 10th-ranked Wolverines came up short.
Michigan (22-6 overall, 13-4 Big Ten), lost to the Cornhuskers (24-7, 11-7), 76-73 in a night plagued with inconsistent play.
“A really tough game for our team,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “I thought both teams played incredibly hard throughout the course of the game.”
Both teams started the game off sloppy, shooting a combined 1-for-6 from the field. Neither was able to gain any traction until Nebraska forward Isabelle Bourne hit a 3-pointer to get the scoring going. The Cornhuskers proceeded to hit the next 9-of-11 shots to get out to a commanding 24-12 lead.
“I think our defense really fueled us early in the season (when) playing teams with potent offenses,” Michigan senior forward Naz Hillmon said. “Obviously in the first, we saw (Nebraska) score 26 points. You can’t open a quarter like that.”
But in the second quarter, the Wolverines shored up their defense, which gave them a chance to come back. Fighting tooth and nail, Michigan was able to overcome its early game setbacks, entering the break up 36-32.
Coming out of halftime, Michigan hoped to continue its strong defense.
But the Cornhuskers came out hot, and the Wolverines’ 3-point defense continued to be an issue.
Both teams exchanged shots making it a back and forth game until Michigan began to hurt itself.
“We put (Nebraska) a bunch to the line and that’s where they got a lot of their points in the third quarter, which obviously came down to hurting us,” Barnes Arico said.
Nebraska hit 11-of-14 free throws in the third, allowing it to go up seven with 2:05 left in the third.
With the time winding down in the third quarter, Michigan freshman guard Laila Phelia was left wide open where she knocked down a 3-pointer with 1:20 in the third to help hold off the momentum.
“(Phelia) made a bunch of plays down the stretch that were really incredible, and we put the ball in her hands to make a lot of those plays,” Barnes Arico said. “As the game progressed, she became more and more comfortable and she really did a tremendous job down the stretch.”
With Michigan up six with five minutes left, its defense collapsed. The Cornhuskers hit six-of-eight to finish the games.
“Right now our defense might be our biggest problem,” Hillmon said.
Despite the poor defense, the Wolverines came up with a stop from Phelia to give them a shot at a bucket. Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico called a timeout with 21 seconds left to set up an offensive play.
“We were trying to get the ball to Naz,” Barnes Arico said. “I think in the moment they were trying to make a play, and we didn’t really execute what we were trying to do. We were trying to get Naz on a staggered screen to get her touch. We thought we got ourselves in really good shape in the fourth quarter in terms of drawing fouls, and we knew that if she got a touch, we would be in good shape.”
But Hillmon never got the ball. With five seconds left, Rauch fouled Nebraska guard Allison Weidner who hit two free throws to put it up 76-73 with four seconds left.
With the final four seconds, Kiser attempted a 3-pointer that badly missed the mark, sealing the Wolverines’ defeat.
The loss puts Michigan in a tough situation. After starting the year 20-2, with aspirations of a Big Ten title, the team has lost four of its last six games. At worst, it may cost the Wolverines the chance to host home games in the NCAA Tournament.