Coming into Thursday night’s game, the Michigan women’s basketball team was on the losing side of a run: it hadn’t beaten Notre Dame in 12 years. Nobody on this team, player or coach, had ever beaten the Fighting Irish.
That all changed as the Wolverines beat Notre Dame, 76-66, in a back-and-forth, intense battle not characteristic of early season games. Come March, this could prove to be a statement win that does wonders for Michigan’s tournament seeding and overall confidence.
“It felt great to beat them,” fifth-year senior wing Akienreh Johnson said. “(Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico) and I got a little emotional after the game because it's my first time beating them since I've been here. It just felt great to finally get a win in that category.”
In the first few moments of the game, it looked like history might repeat itself once again.
Notre Dame’s defense came out hot playing in a zone defense in an attempt to minimize the Wolverines’ opportunities in the paint. Specifically, the Irish wanted to stop junior forward Naz Hillmon as much as possible. Hillmon was flustered early, committing three turnovers in the opening minutes.
Turnovers, a key problem from last season, came in droves for Michigan and Notre Dame was quick to capitalize on them. The Irish’s points off turnovers coupled with the Wolverines’ four-minute scoring drought helped Notre Dame jump out to an early lead.
But the Wolverines didn’t shy away from their game plan. And it worked.
“We just have to settle in and be more patient,” senior forward Hailey Brown said. “Often we knew that we were going to be able to get some good looks. I think in the second half, once we settled in and started to move the ball and get some paint touches.”
Hillmon, flanked with double and triple teams consistently, had to work a little harder to get open. However, she is the focal point of Michigan’s offense and the Wolverines didn’t shy away from their MO. By cutting down on turnovers and using Hillmon’s presence in the paint, other players were left open for easy shots and the Wolverines went on a tear, making seven straight field goals.
“The middle was open, the corners were open,” Johnson said. “We kind of just started to slow the ball, and be more patient and just get better looks.”
The two teams traded runs and the Wolverines entered the locker room with a two-point lead at the half. Their halftime adjustments proved to be a difference maker.
With nine minutes left, the Wolverines clung to a one point lead. Once the Wolverines were able to create meaningful possessions and minimize their turnovers, their defense was also able to flourish. To close out the fourth quarter, Notre Dame went 1-for-10. Michigan opened up a 13-point lead.
With all eyes — and sometimes three players — on Hillmon, she was still able to catch passes from the inside and be a threat in the paint. Notre Dame consistently attacked her, but Hillmon used this to her advantage by getting to the free throw line seven times, going 12-for-13.
All the focus was on Hillmon and Michigan capitalized on this by finding its open players.
Hailey Brown was a main beneficiary, finishing with 18 points and spreading out the offense via three 3-pointers. Coming off the bench, sophomore guard Maddie Nolan gave the team its initial life by hitting a clutch 3-pointer in the second quarter. She hit another 3-pointer in a 7-0 Michigan run in the fourth quarter to give the Wolverines a lead they would never relinquish.
Fifth-year senior wing Akienreh Johnson was back in the starting lineup after being sidelined for one game with a leg injury. She played less than usual, only logging 24 minutes, but she played an efficient game going 5-for-9 from the field. No shot of hers was bigger than her 3-pointer with less than four minutes left to give the Wolverines an 11-point lead. This came in the midst of a 9-0 run for Michigan and a three minute scoring drought for the Irish.
Early season non-conference games are usually cupcakes with not many storylines. But with their trip to Notre Dame, the Michigan women’s basketball team got the early-season test they needed.
In only its third game, Michigan showed what kind of team it can be. A game of this nature can either expose or build up a team. For the Wolverines, it was the latter.
“For our kids who are Midwest kids for the most part they grew up watching Notre Dame win championships,” Barnes Arico said. “For us to come here and be able to win a game on their home court is really special.”
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