YPSILANTI — At the media timeout halfway through the first quarter, the play on the court had a similar feel.
Michigan was shooting 1-for-9, missing layups and unable to create open looks. Then, freshman center Izabel Varejão entered the game for the Wolverines and immediately brought the tempo up, forcing holes in Eastern Michigan’s defense.
After her entrance, Michigan women’s basketball team (5-1) found its groove and exerted its dominance over the Eagles (2-4), with a 57-38 win on Wednesday.
For much of the first quarter, it was tough sledding. The Eastern Michigan defense forced the Wolverines into tough looks — contested layups, long threes — and nothing went in the basket.
“I just think it was getting into our rhythm,” sophomore forward Naz Hillmon said. “We thought that the rims were a little tight over here and they were very physical, so just figuring out our game plan, not trying to rush anything and make sure we were playing our game.”
Michigan’s game is the post, and with the introduction of Varejão on the court, their game finally picked up steam.
“(Varejão) does a really good job of knowing where she should be,” Hillmon said. “A lot of people sometimes try to take me and double me, so then she finds her open spots — so as much as people double me they have to worry about (Varejão) and she gets to those spots, finishes those plays when she can.”
The Eagles had to respect her movement, which opened up space under the basket for players like Hillmon and sophomore forward Emily Kiser to make plays, putting the most productive part of the Wolverines’ offense into gear despite the loss of starting junior forward Hailey Brown to a lower back injury in the first half.
With Michigan’s offense gaining its rhythm, the game was now clearly in its hands, especially with a defense that buckled down and preserved the tight game for a faltering offense all half.
The Wolverines’ defense allowed just nine points in the first half, smothering any of the Eagles’ play inside.
“I thought we were really locked into the scout,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “I thought (sophomore guard Amy Dilk) did a great job on No. 13 (Jenna Annecchiarico), that was the game plan going in and she really frustrated that girl and was outstanding defensively on her.”
Added Varejão: “We knew that we were not finishing, but we were trying to do a good job on defense because if we’re not finishing we can’t allow them to finish, so I feel like we did a good job in that and stopping them from finishing.”
Michigan’s success defending Eastern Michigan was due to its physicality, Hillmon and the Eagles’ Autumn Hudson found themselves locked into a wrestling match every possession, on both side of the court.
“I didn’t want them to think that they could take up my space,” Hillmon said. “There are certain spots on the court that when I’m there I want to own it and not think that they can push me out of what I had going on.”
Hillmon’s physical dominance under the basket, like it has all year, spurred on Varejão’s success.
“My teammates always try to look for me,” Varejão said. “The way we work with the post players, both post players work really well on the court. We see each other every time, if you’re doubled you’re going to pass and we have a good read.”
With three minutes left in the first quarter, Hillmon was facing a double team in the post. Varejão saw an opportunity and made a run toward the hoop, away from the double team. Dilk spotted her run and snuck a bullet through traffic to Varejão, who put it in for an easy basket to tie the game at four.
The Wolverines never looked back. The offense found its groove.