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Returning to Crisler Center for the first time since Nov. 16 after five road wins, the No. 17 Michigan women’s basketball team looked to open Big Ten play on a strong foot Sunday afternoon.

Though it wasn’t in dominant fashion, the Wolverines (9-0 overall, 1-0 Big Ten) defeated Northwestern (4-4, 0-1), 77-66, in a back-and-forth game characterized by Michigan’s struggles to pull away until the final minutes.

“Every time they had to take a timeout, and we were up six, I’m like, ‘Alright, now we’re gonna put our foot on the gas,’” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “And then we turn it over, they’d get an and-1, they’d make a big three, like what is going on?”

In a tight first half, the Wolverines failed to take advantage of numerous potential momentum-shifting plays. Midway through the second quarter, sophomore guard Greta Kampschroeder hit a 3-pointer right at the shot clock buzzer, giving Michigan a four-point lead — its largest of the half — and provided a chance for the Wolverines to spark a run. 

However, coming out of a Northwestern timeout, the Wildcats knocked down two consecutive layups to tie the game once again. That type of sequence frequently occurred throughout the contest: Michigan extended its lead and forced a Northwestern timeout, seemingly creating a momentum shift. Each time, though, the Wildcats came out of the break energized and clawed their way right back in.

“It just seemed to be one of those days,” Barnes Arico said. “We weren’t as sharp as we normally are mentally, to really kind of keep our foot on the gas and not make those silly mistakes.”

Michigan finished the game with 19 total turnovers, not to mention the dropped passes and missed rebound opportunities that plagued the Wolverines. To make matters worse for Michigan, graduate forward Emily Kiser — who usually serves as a spark — entered halftime with just four points, compared to the double-digit numbers that she has averaged in first halves this season.

“I didn’t think we did a great job of finding Emily in the first half,” Barnes Arico said. “I thought that was kind of on us to give her some better looks.”

Coming out of the break, the Wolverines had another chance to run with momentum after extending their lead to six.

But again, Michigan was unable to capitalize.

Throughout the rest of the quarter, each team traded leads — and neither was able to pull away. 

The Wolverines recognized their inconsistent play:

“I think that if we would have played with the intensity and the pressure that we played with in the fourth quarter … where we were able to kind of put them away and get a little more of a comfortable lead, the game probably would have been a little different,” fifth-year wing Leigha Brown said.

The game might’ve shaped up differently if Michigan had played the full game like it did towards the end of the fourth quarter. But those final minutes proved just enough to outlast Northwestern.

After trading fouls and layups, the Wolverines began pulling away after a steal and score from sophomore guard Laila Phelia midway through the final quarter. A subsequent block from senior guard Maddie Nolan sent Crisler Center into a frenzy, punctuated by a turn-around layup from Kiser to put Michigan up by eight.

The game looked almost secure for the Wolverines, with the team feeding off the energy from the crowd. Northwestern returned within two points after forcing sloppy play in the press, but a timely corner three from Nolan and a steal into an and-one layup from Brown — combined with an intentional foul that gave the Wolverines two free throws — finally put the exclamation point on the game.

“We found a way to grind it out after a long week on the road,” Barnes Arico said. “So I’m really proud of our kids.”

Despite struggling to capitalize on momentum throughout the contest, Michigan ultimately pulled through when it mattered most, securing a lead in the final minutes that Northwestern was finally unable to match.

And while the Wolverines weren’t as dominant or show-stopping as they’ve been at times this season, they still came out victorious. 

And to kick off a grueling Big Ten season, that’s all Michigan can ask for.