It didn’t take long for the No. 16 Michigan women's basketball team to start off 2021 on the right foot.
In only their second game since Dec. 9 and against their first ranked opponent of the season, the Wolverines, anchored by 3-point shooting, controlled the game from start to finish, beating the Wildcats 84-63 in dominating fashion.
With an undefeated record, the Wolverines have had an impressive start to the season, but four minutes into Sunday’s match-up, it was clear this game would be something different entirely.
Tied 4-4 two minutes into the game, junior forward Naz Hillmon, with some of the Big Ten’s best defenders draped over her, received a pass from the top of the key and laid it in.
Seconds later, junior wing Leigha Brown stole the ball and found fifth-year senior guard Akienreh Johnson wide open in the corner. Johnson drilled the 3-pointer, and the Wolverines (7-0 Overall, 2-0 Big Ten) only built their lead from there.
Not only was the game never again tied, but No. 15 Northwestern (4-2, 2-2) was never again within striking distance.
“I was really proud of the way our team came out of the gates,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “The focus and the lock-in … and attacking what we thought was going to be open, to lock down and play on the defensive end on the road against a really tough team.”
The Wildcats boast one of the Big Ten’s best defenses, known for forcing turnovers and picking guard’s pockets frequently. That didn’t seem to matter as they had no answers for Hillmon’s physical presence inside. Hillmon’s skill is evident virtually every time she touches the ball, but her performance against Northwestern showed the extra dimension she can add to the team. Her ability to pass out of the post while flanked with multiple defenders can be the difference that produces the type of efficient offense the Wolverines are capable of.
“(Hillmon’s) so unselfish,” Barnes Arico said. “Sometimes I wish that she would take some of them, but she’s like, ‘But my teammates are so wide open.’ But you just feel like, anytime now as she said, it’s going to go in. She’s a tremendous passer, and it was tonight we were able to finish that inside-outside game and when you can do that, you’re really tough to stop.”
With all eyes and defenders focused on controlling Hillmon in the paint, there were players open on the perimeter. The Wolverines’ ability to hit open 3-pointers proved to be the spark. Johnson’s 3-pointer started a 10 point scoring run that was capped off by Brown draining a wide-open three, forcing Northwestern to call a timeout.
The hot start continued as Michigan went 5-for-5 from three to start the game. Brown was 3-for-3 from outside in the first quarter alone and finished the first quarter with 11 points. Brown and Hillmon combined for more points in the first quarter, 19, than the Wildcats did as a team, 13. After the first quarter, the Wolverines led 28-13.
From there, their lead continued to grow.
As a whole, the team shot 8-for-13 from 3-point range.
“Anytime you make shots the way that we (did tonight), it’s going to be tough because we have such a great inside-outside presence,” Barnes Arico said.
Hillmon ended the game with her 5th double-double of the season with 26 points and 12 rebounds, playing an efficient game shooting 10-for-14. Brown finished with 22 points, shooting 4-for-5 from 3-point range.
To close out the half in a play emblematic of the entire game, Brown heaved up on a 3-pointer as the clock hit zero and found nothing but net. The Wolverines shot 74% in the first half and took a half time lead of 55-26.
The Wildcats came out of the half with renewed energy and went on a 9-0 run. However, already in a huge hole, this proved to do little in changing the game. Northwestern was able to slow down Michigan on offense as some players got into foul trouble.
“When we have this second half like we did tonight, (the lead) definitely helps,” Brown said. “Being able to be up so much in the first … I think that’s just a testament to how much work we’ve put in.”
Johnson, the team’s leading defender, was able to lock down two of the Big Ten’s best players in Wildcat guards Lindsey Pulliam and Veronica Burton. Pulliam was limited to 13 points while Burton had seven.
“(Johnson is) up to every challenge,” Barnes Arico said. “She does a great job of really locking in and shutting down Pulliam every time we play her, and she was just fabulous again tonight.”
No matter the size of the lead, the Wolverines didn’t stop their defensive effort. They shifted into a zone defense and consistently forced the Wildcats to take contested, low percentage shots and use up the entire shot clock.
Playing its first ranked opponent of the season on the road with still only eight players available, this game could set the tone for the rest of the season. If the Wolverines continue this level of performance, it won’t just set the tone for Michigan, but it could set the standard for the Big Ten.