INDIANAPOLIS — As the Michigan offense set up shop in the dying seconds of the fourth quarter, its previous two meetings with Northwestern loomed large over Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
In those two matchups, the Wolverines (21-10 overall, 10-8 Big Ten) hung tough with the 11th-ranked Wildcats (27-3, 16-2) before ultimately losing by totals of just six and eight points.
“I think our kids will want an opportunity to play against them in the Big Ten Tournament for sure,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said after the second loss. “I think our kids will have a lot of confidence to play against them again.”
Once again, in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals, the Wolverines matched up with the Wildcats almost pound-for-pound. But this time, in a game with 11 lead changes in the first half alone, Michigan’s edge showed itself the whole way through.
Nursing a three-point lead, senior guard Akienreh Johnson swung the ball to junior forward Hailey Brown in the corner. She fired the shot off the glass and in. Ballgame.
The Wolverines’ bench erupted. Moments later, when the buzzer sounded on their 67-59 win, they poured onto the court, finally able to celebrate a win they’d been thirsting for since Feb. 13.
“(We played with) a lot of edge. A lot,” senior guard Akienreh Johnson said. “We just knew that we were gonna come in and we were gonna get it done.”
The first ingredient to that success was, as always, sophomore forward Naz Hillmon. Hillmon — who was limited by an upper-body injury in the second Northwestern game — put up a casual 20 points on 8-of-12 shooting, despite facing a double team the entire game.
“In our previous two games, (Northwestern) did the same thing,” Hillmon said. “We noticed that I can’t just hold the ball and wait for them to come double me. … Really just trying to be aggressive early so that they couldn’t take away our post touches.”
Brown added to this presence down low with a strong game of her own in the paint. Normally more of an outside threat — she hit three triples in each of the previous two Northwestern games — she instead worked alongside Hillmon to bully the Wildcats in the paint. She scored 19 points, despite sinking just two 3-pointers all game.
Freshman guard Maddie Nolan followed up her strong performance against Nebraska with a shooting gallery on Friday. With the Wildcats’ defenders closing out on Brown and Hillmon in the paint, she was open on the kick for most of the game. From there, she didn’t miss, finishing with 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting — including 3-for-4 from three. She even added eight rebounds for good measure.
On the backs of Hillmon, Brown, and Nolan, Michigan opened up a nine-point lead with five minutes remaining. And with a little more breathing room, the defense stepped up, denying the inside and securing rebounds to keep Northwestern from completing a comeback.
“We knew that (in the) fourth quarter, people are gonna try to take over the game,” Hillmon said. “We know that our defense fuels our offense, so we had to get stops so we can get the easy buckets that we got. … Really just trying to focus on one stop at a time.”
Make no mistake about it: Friday’s game was Michigan’s biggest win yet this season. Against a solid team it barely fell short against twice this season, it finally found the right formula to finish strong. After countless moral victories, the Wolverines finally proved they can win games against top teams.
And in March, nothing matters more.