Michigan’s players looked up. Two minutes remained in overtime. They led Syracuse by five. They could have dug in their heels, played drop-back defense and waited for the clock to bleed down.
But there would be no waiting in this game.
Senior guard Akienreh Johnson jumped on a bad pass by guard Teisha Hyman, broke to the basket and picked up an and-one.
The Wolverines didn’t look back on their way to an 84-76 win over Syracuse.
Even getting to overtime took a near miracle from Michigan. Midway through the fourth quarter, the Orange held a nine-point lead, and Michigan’s offense was reeling. It had only hit one field goal in the quarter.
In desperate times, the Wolverines needed a spark, and it was their defense that provided it. Coach Kim Barnes Arico dialed up a full-court press in hopes of forcing turnovers, and it paid dividends.
Starting with a quick bucket after a steal from sophomore forward Naz Hillmon, Michigan scored eight of the next 10 points — all of which came off Syracuse turnovers.
“It was Naz at the front of that press, and (sophomore guard) Amy (Dilk) and (Johnson) right behind her,” Barnes Arico said. “They’re so long and disruptive, and they were so tough.
From the beginning, it was clear the game would be a nailbiter, with both teams reaching double digits before the first TV timeout. Junior forward Hailey Brown set the tone right away, driving past the Orange defense and drawing a foul less than 15 seconds in. She sunk both free throws.
Every time one team made a big play that felt like a turning point, the other side would come right back with a quick bucket of its own. Much of this came from Syracuse’s high-volume performance from beyond the arc, especially early on. In the first quarter alone, it buried 5-of-10 triples, three of which came from Hyman, who had previously made just two 3-pointers all season.
But the Wolverines’ adjustments on defense — and Hyman sitting out with foul trouble — meant Syracuse couldn’t quite maintain that same pace from downtown later in the game. Michigan’s press continued to fluster the Orange’s shooters, forcing poor passes and hurried shots. They made just five 3-pointers in the second half.
“We tried to keep switching defenses on them,” Barnes Arico said. “We tried not to stay in the same thing so they couldn’t get comfortable.”
Offensively, senior forward Kayla Robbins was the biggest difference-maker for the Wolverines. She led the team with 23 points, including a layup with just over a minute left that gave Michigan a one-point lead.
Once overtime started, it was all Wolverines. They outscored Syracuse, 13-5, in the extra period, making almost no mistakes and sinking a number of crucial free throws to seal the victory.
Going in, Michigan knew that Syracuse’s zone defense could cause problems — especially with the turnover woes that the Wolverines have endured this year. But they took care of the ball, found holes in the zone and picked up a signature win along the way.
“We focused on worrying about ourselves, because as much as we focused in on their defense and their offense, they have to also worry about us,” Hillmon said. “So we just played our game. We knew that something would come to us.”