When Akienreh Johnson lobbed a pass from the corner into a double-teamed Hallie Thome midway through the fourth quarter, it looked like a turnover waiting to happen. Instead, Thome plucked it out mid-air and finished the contested layup.
A pass that would’ve resulted in a failed possession earlier in the season instead resulted in two points.
The bad luck and late-game struggles that had plagued the Michigan women’s basketball team (19-9 overall, 10-6 Big Ten) at the beginning of Big Ten play, were nowhere to be seen during their 88-76 victory over Rutgers (18-8 overall, 10-5) on Thursday night.
Johnson catalyzed Michigan early. Within the span of a minute, the junior guard had converted an offensive putback on one end, dove to the floor to win a jump-ball and then blocked a Scarlet Knight’s jumper.
On top of their early lead, midway through the first quarter, the Wolverines also welcomed freshman point guard Amy Dilk back from a knee-injury which had sidelined her for the past three games. Michigan looked much more organized offensively with Dilk back at the helm.
“It’s awesome to have her back,” said freshman forward Naz Hillmon. “It mostly just the point of her getting her confidence back and getting back into the flow of things. Even though we’ve been winning, we definitely wanted her back on the court because she’s such a great floor general.”
Despite the Wolverines’ energetic start, Rutgers hung tough. On a number of occasions, the Scarlet Knights were able to break the Michigan’s full-court press and find an open shooter. For every layup a Wolverine converted, a Scarlet Knight would respond with one of their own.
After a back-and-forth ten minutes, Michigan held a one-point advantage.
The opening minutes of the second quarter were characterized by frequent game stoppages. A loose-ball foul here, a shooting foul there. Even with the discontinuity, the Wolverines were able to open up an eight-point lead. In the midst of a sloppy possession, the ball found its way into the hands of senior guard Nicole Munger, who nailed her second three-pointer of the game from the top of the key. Soon after, Deja Church punctuated a Michigan fast-break with a skillful euro-step layup.
“I think we’ve gotten good on finding the open people and finding the offensive lanes,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “Deja and Akienreh have done a great job of finding the lanes and being able to penetrate through that. Akienreh did a great job of that tonight. But we want to take advantage of matchups at all times.”
Similar to the first quarter though, Rutgers wouldn’t go away. Charise Wilson cut the deficit to just two points heading into the break after capitalizing on a slow defensive rotation from the Wolverines and hitting a three from the wing.
The seesawing nature of the game continued into the second half. Following a threaded bounce pass from Church to Hillmon for an easy layup, the Scarlet Knights’ Stasha Carey converted a reverse layup off a precise no-look dish from her driving teammate. The Wolverines answered right back though. Again off an assist from Church, Hillmon finished a floater through traffic for an and-one opportunity.
Michigan re-established its’ eight-point advantage when Dilk stripped the ball from her opposite number and threw it ahead to junior forward Kayla Robbins, who finished at the rim.
Rutgers did everything it could to come back in the fourth quarter, but the Wolverines held firm. Hillmon — who finished with a team-high 21 points — was a big reason why. She was an immovable object on the block down the stretch, with every touch under the basket leading to two points.
“I keep telling her teammates ‘Just get Naz the ball!’ ” Barnes Arico said. “She’s just special. She has a knack for scoring the basketball with such a quick move and an explosive release. She can get her shot off against anyone. We did a great job of finding her in the second half.”
Michigan’s seventh straight victory was cemented a few minutes later when Johnson converted a floater from the baseline and Thome scored another layup through contact.
“We just have to keep sticking to one game at a time,” Munger said. “We’re having fun right and on the court we’re always smiling.”