Playing the first of three games in a three-day span in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, the Michigan Women’s basketball team was looking to start the weekend off with a victory.
And while the Wolverines (3-0 overall) may have looked sluggish to start the game, they turned the game around with strong rebounding and defense, beating Middle Tennessee (2-2), 63-49.
“I was really pleased with the way our team defended,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “I thought we were outstanding. … We’re a new team together and trying to figure out our chemistry, and tonight was a great step forward for us.”
Michigan struggled to find that chemistry in the first quarter against its toughest opponent of the season, going through a five-minute scoring drought and turning the ball over six times. Down 11-6, the Wolverines were in need of spark — and graduate guard Lauren Hansen lit the match.
Hansen bookended an 8-0 Michigan drive with two three-point plays. The first began with a steal as Hansen scored a contested layup and free throw off an and-one. As time expired in the first quarter, Hansen carried that intensity and knocked down a much-needed triple that put the Wolverines up 14-11. That success behind the arc in the first half wasn’t contained to just Hansen as Michigan tallied five 3-pointers from five different scorers.
On the defensive end, Hansen shined too. Despite being the Wolverines’ shortest player at 5-foot-8, Hansen led her team in rebounds with six in the first half and finished the game with seven. More impressively, Hansen matched the total of the Lady Raiders’ 6-foot-6 center
“We want (defense) to be our identity,” Hansen said. “So every single day, we’re being intentional about it — our communication, our intensity, our physicality. That was a big emphasis going into tonight. And we knew that if we started that from jump, then we could carry that throughout the game and eventually try to wear them down.”
By holding Middle Tennessee to just 18 first-half points — its lowest total of the season — Michigan was able to do just that.
The Wolverines dialed up the intensity to open up the second half by going on an 11-0 run. But turnovers continued to be an issue for Michigan as it gave up the ball five times in the third quarter, contributing to the 20 points off turnovers the Raiders scored throughout the game with a combination of travels, shot clock violations and stolen dribbles.
Middle Tennessee did not go away quietly, making crafty mid-range jumpers and corner 3-pointers. But the Raiders’ final effort wasn’t enough to stop the Wolverines, especially as junior guard Laila Phelia finally got into a rhythm. Phelia went 4-for-4 from the field and garnered 14 of her 20 points in the latter half of the game.
And on back-to-back possessions, Phelia swiped two steals, leading to four Michigan points that helped put the game out of reach for the Raiders.
The defensive effort was key for the Wolverines, continuously changing the momentum of the game. And against a team with a reigning MAC Player of the Year, Michigan needed its defense to step up.
“Savannah Wheeler is the Conference Player of the Year … and Laila Phelia held her to 1-for-12 from the field,” Barnes Arico said. “And number 10, (Jalynn) Gregory, is coming off a game where she scored (15) points from the three-point line and Lauren held her two-of-nine. So I thought we did a tremendous job of establishing ourselves on the defensive and taking their guard play away early.”
In transition, the Wolverines were dominant too, outscoring Middle Tennessee 19-2. Those fast break points would be the difference in this game, and the ability to grab rebounds and turn them into quick points will be crucial in conference play.
Michigan was certainly hoping to play cleaner in its first road test of the season. But by holding a team that averaged 73.3 points per game to just 49, the Wolverines showed that their defense can uplift them when the offense is stagnant.