MINNEAPOLIS — It’s not easy to beat a team three times in one season.
Adjustments, changing circumstances and added motivation create different outcomes in repeat matchups, often making back-to-back-to-back victories a daunting task.
But on Friday, the No. 17 Michigan women’s basketball team (22-9 overall, 12-8 Big Ten) allowed No. 14 Ohio State (24-6, 13-6) to do just that. The Wolverines fell just short, 81-79, to the Buckeyes, ending their Big Ten Tournament run after a back-and-forth battle. Despite trailing by eight points at halftime, Michigan clawed back late thanks to a strong, well-rounded offensive attack before missing a game-tying shot on the game’s final play.
“I think this was an unbelievable basketball game,” Wolverines coach Kim Barnes Arico said postgame. “Like a really great basketball game that we were in a position to win. So I think that gives our team confidence that we can compete with anybody in the country.”
From the game’s onset, it was clear that Michigan was prepared to keep pace with Ohio State’s offense. Two crisp passes put the ball in sophomore guard Jordan Hobbs’ hands, who scored a contested three. A foul was called on the close out, Hobbs made her free throw and the Wolverines were up 4-0.
In response, the Buckeyes hit a contested 3-pointer of their own, bringing the score to 4-3 just moments into the game. The strong offensive showings on both sides in those opening moments continued on throughout the game: the two teams traded layups, deep shots and free throws to keep the margin incredibly tight throughout much of the first half, though it ended 47-39 in Ohio State’s favor.
For the Buckeyes, forward Cotie McMahon led the way — scoring 28 points to keep Ohio State on top. At times, Michigan looked outmatched on the interior, with McMahon and junior guard Rikki Harris scoring with ease on inside baskets.
“She’s a kid that goes a hundred miles an hour downhill,” Barnes Arico said of McMahon. “(She) is one of the best players in our league.”
Overall, the Buckeyes’ efficient shooting kept Michigan behind throughout most of the game. But at the other end, the Wolverines put together a strong offensive performance to keep pace up until the final moments.
In each of the first two matchups, Michigan struggled to overcome Ohio State’s suffocating full-court press. It was only logical, therefore, that the Buckeyes would employ the coverage to some extent in Friday’s matchup.
Unlike those first two matchups, though, the Wolverines looked prepared.
Michigan turned the ball over nine times, a notable decrease from their 27 giveaways in each of the first two matchups. The Wolverines moved the ball well throughout, finishing with 16 assists in as clean of an offensive performance as they’ve had in recent weeks.
Leading the way for their offense was fifth-year wing Leigha Brown, who finished with 19 points. But the effort didn’t end with her: four Michigan players finished with double digits.
The Wolverines appeared up to the task of remedying the errors behind those two regular season losses. As the game looked to be getting out of hand in the third quarter, a couple of game-changing and-1 baskets from Brown and senior guard Maddie Nolan brought the game back within just one point midway through the third.
But just like in the first half, inconsistent defense made overtaking Ohio State a struggle. The Buckeyes attacked the paint consistently in the second half, drawing fouls and challenging Michigan with physical, gritty offensive possessions.
“I think defensively we don’t want to give up 81 points a game,” Barnes Arico said. “So if we can be a little bit better on the defensive end, we’re always a work in progress.”
Then, with just over six minutes left, the Wolverines finally took the lead. Brown kicked to Nolan in the corner, who put them up 70-68.
Just as Michigan looked to gain some control, though, McMahon played spoiler. She picked off a Michigan pass with three minutes left, scoring a fast-break layup to regain the lead. Then, on the subsequent offensive possession, she drew a tough foul and hit both her free throws — putting Ohio State back on top.
The Wolverines kept fighting, however, but it wasn’t enough. With seconds remaining, Brown’s miss on a contested layup decided the game — leaving the Wolverines just short and sending them home from the Big Ten Tournament after just two games.