BATON ROUGE, La. — In a packed Pete Maravich Assembly Center, the scenes at the two benches couldn’t have been more different. One by one, the Michigan women’s basketball team’s seniors checked out of their final game, tearing up and embracing each other and their coaches.
Yet just a few feet over and throughout the stands, there were palpable waves of excitement, waves that had been building since the first quarter. Because No. 3 seed LSU was advancing to its first Sweet Sixteen in nine years, and it had done so by thoroughly dominating the sixth-seeded Wolverines.
The Tigers knocked Michigan out of the fight early. Unable to generate offense for the entire first half and unable to keep LSU off the glass, the Wolverines’ (23-10 overall) opportunity to advance to their third-straight Sweet Sixteen quickly slipped away as they fell to the Tigers (30-2), 66-42, on LSU’s home court.
“They were physical and really limited our scoring and didn’t allow us to get into rhythm,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said postgame. “I thought they did a great job.”
Both teams initially struggled to take the lid off the basket, shooting a combined 24% from the field in the first quarter, with the Wolverines mustering just seven points. But LSU created separation thanks to star forward Angel Reese, who grabbed seven offensive rebounds in the period, giving her team a multitude of second-chance opportunities.
Then Tigers guard Jasmine Carson sent the crowd into a frenzy, draining three 3-pointers in the first three-and-a-half minutes of the second quarter to help put LSU up by 14 points and force a Michigan timeout to try to stop the bleeding. But the Wolverines continued struggling to score, entering halftime facing a 30-15 deficit.
The Tigers’ defense stymied the Wolverines, all but eliminating the looks that they had relied on all season by taking away post entry passes and tightly guarding the perimeter. Not only did Michigan score its lowest first-half total of the season by a large margin, but fifth-year wing Leigha Brown and senior guard Maddie Nolan — the team’s leading and fourth-leading scorers, respectively — entered halftime with zero points to their names.
“They were really overplaying. I mean, overplaying, overplaying,” Barnes Arico said “Then when we got the ball inside, they really doubled down and were just taking away passing lanes for any open shots. Maddie didn’t even get a real clear look most of the game.”
To compound Michigan’s offensive struggles, Reese continued to dominate, notching a double-double by halftime and ending the game with 25 points, 24 rebounds, six blocks and three steals. And each time she swatted a ball into the stands or finished through contact, she further electrified the crowd by whipping her arms around or griddying as she ran back down the court.
But in the first minute of the second half, the Wolverines seemed to find new life. Scoring five unanswered points in 55 seconds, including a triple from Brown to finally get her on the scoreboard, Michigan forced the Tigers to take a timeout.
An ensuing game-wide scoring drought nearly three minutes long — filled with blocks, messy transition play and missed open looks — was broken by junior forward Cameron Williams’ layup, finally bringing the Wolverines within single digits and giving them one last chance to save their season. But LSU had been there before, in a loss just a few weeks prior.
“We were up 17 against Tennessee (in the SEC Tournament) and look what happened,” Reese said. “We couldn’t get comfortable. We came out, third quarter pretty slow. I think they were on a 5-0 run. Being able to come into the timeout and telling us ‘Stay poised, stay together. We have to address this right now so this doesn’t happen again, like it happened in SEC.’ ”
Despite the Wolverines scoring more in the third quarter than they had the entire first half, the Tigers’ offense quickly reawakened, burying Michigan in a 16-point hole entering the final quarter of play.
And in the fourth, with sophomore guard Laila Phelia the only Wolverine able to generate consistent offense, LSU continued to grow its lead. A couple well-timed 3-pointers, emphatic blocks from Reese and transition buckets ballooned the Tigers’ lead and fully brought Michigan’s season to a close.
As the fourth quarter wore on, the reality set in for the Wolverines — their season was over at the hands of a thorough dismantling from LSU.
“Unfortunately, tonight didn’t go how we wanted it to,” Brown said, choking back tears. “Just reflecting on the past three years and even this season, I wouldn’t change a thing. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Super happy to have all these girls by my side.”
Well before the final buzzer sounded, benches cleared and seniors hugged as the clock wound down on the game — and on Michigan’s season, too.
Because there would be no shot of a comeback, no final play to try to extend the season. Emphatic play after emphatic play, dagger after dagger, the Tigers had knocked the Wolverines down and left no room for them to get back up.