INDIANAPOLIS — Beating a team three times in one season is a challenge for any team. To say Michigan and Northwestern know each other inside and out is an understatement. With two previous meetings between the two teams — both Wolverine victories — the No. 4 seed Michigan women’s basketball team (14-5 overall, 9-5 Big Ten) knew exactly what No. 5 seed Northwestern (15-7, 12-7) was going to do.
That didn’t make the game any easier.
The Wolverines knew they had to slow down the Wildcats’ explosive guards. They simply couldn’t do it. Playing with a chip on their shoulder, Northwestern stunned Michigan, 65-49, in the Wolverine’s worst offensive performance of the season.
Both teams were playing for a spot in the Big Ten Semifinals, but the Wildcats’s extra motivation proved to be the difference.
“There was a different type of fight they had today,” junior forward Naz Hillmon said. “Not saying that we didn’t (have that energy), but coming off those two losses, they had that in front of their mind.”
Michigan came out flat in the first quarter. Each team failed to score the first several possessions, but Northwestern found their offensive groove faster than the Wolverines. Facing the Wildcat’s zone defense, the normal passing lanes feeding Hillmon in the paint were blocked. Hillmon was still able to score 10 first quarter points, but Northwestern forced Michigan’s other playmakers to shoot threes in order to find their rhythm. Senior forward Hailey Brown scored the only other first quarter points, making the Wolverine’s lone 3-pointer of the day.
Northwestern had all the momentum after the first quarter, leading 17-13. The second quarter proved to be the Wolverine’s best effort of the day. Hillmon forced a turnover midway through the quarter, leading to junior wing Leigha Brown’s first points of the day.
This play sparked a 6-0 run by Michigan, their first real momentum of the day, but Northwestern countered with a 5-0 run of their own. Guard Veronica Burton pushed the pace of play throughout the half, constantly killing any momentum by Michigan. The game was tied 30-30 at halftime, but the end of the second quarter sucked all of the fight out of the Wolverines.
The little momentum and offensive production Michigan carried into the half disappeared as the Wildcats came out of the locker room playing aggressively on both ends of the floor. Northwestern’s full-court press defense posed problems for Michigan in the third quarter. The Wolverines shot 17.6% in the third quarter, scoring only eight points. This allowed Northwestern to take a 46-38 lead.
Guard Lindsey Pulliam pushed the pace on the offensive end, scoring half of the Wildcats’ points in the third quarter. Senior forward Hailey Brown’s defensive presence was missed as she sat on the bench for long stretches in the third quarter due to foul trouble.
“Our defense today really hurt us,” Hillmon said. “As much as we want to get into the offense, if you’re in a scoring drought you have to get stops. We did make a couple of runs because we got a stop. Then we got into our drought and didn’t get those stops.”
Michigan’s defensive miscues, including multiple players getting into foul trouble, did no favors for their struggling offense. Whether it was airballing 3-pointers or picking up unnecessary fouls, Michigan fell apart in the second half. Michigan’s offensive woes they ended the regular season with carried over and they could never find their groove. The Wolverines finished the stretch of the season with poor outside shooting. This rust was still evident.
With all eyes on Hillmon again, Michigan’s outside shooters couldn’t shoulder the burden. The Wolverines shot a meager 29.2% from the field.
“We were settling especially when we got tight and not playing for the best shot but for the first shot,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said.
Down ten points with seven minutes to go, Hillmon tried to take matters into her own hands, bouncing an inbound pass off a defender’s back and making a layup. Northwestern wouldn’t let up though, hitting a three on the next two possessions, once again draining all the energy from Michigan. This shot the Wildcats’ lead up to 14 points, a hole Michigan couldn’t climb out of.
Hillmon finished 26 points, shooting 10-for-19 from the field, but it was her teammates’ lack of outside shooting that plagued the team. Leigha Brown assumed her role as the team’s second leading scorer with ten points but was inefficient in her performance, shooting 5-for-14. The wing’s offensive production was indicative of the rest of Michigan’s inability to hit open shots — a theme that carried over from the end of the regular season.
“(Northwestern) really picked and chose who they would want to leave open,” Hillmon said. “It wasn’t necessarily the shots that we usually get around the basket, so it goes back to not knocking down those shots.”
Michigan’s season-long quest at a Big Ten Championship ended in stunning fashion. Unable to ever find their offensive groove, the Wolverines will have to sit back and watch as they await their NCAA Tournament fate.