INDIANAPOLIS — Midway through the fourth quarter Saturday, as Ohio State nursed a three-point lead, junior forward Hailey Brown found herself open with an opportunity to tie the game.
The play felt like a rerun of the end of Friday’s duel with Northwestern, when Brown iced the win with a 3-pointer off the glass. Another shot like that, and the Wolverines find themselves in a tie game with all the momentum.
It rimmed out.
Not to worry, though. After a quick miss from the Buckeyes, freshman guard Maddie Nolan found an open look of her own. She had buried 3-of-4 from deep against the Wildcats, so this one felt like a certainty.
Nope. Another clank off the rim.
As the buzzer sounded on Michigan’s 66-60 loss in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals, there hung a sense that the Wolverines could have won. Just one night earlier, almost everything fell in a perfect storm that ended in the tournament’s biggest upset. But Saturday, they just couldn’t hit the open shots they needed to pull off one more.
“(Friday) we made shots. We won the game,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “If it was that easy — we didn't make shots early (Saturday), and I think when you don't make shots early, that messes with your confidence a little bit.”
Beyond that pair of missed threes, there were plenty of examples of Michigan not capitalizing on its opportunities. One could point to its 5-for-11 mark from the free throw line, or players passing on open looks because they’d lost the confidence to shoot. Even sophomore guard Naz Hillmon — the Wolverines’ most reliable scorer, who finished with 22 points — missed on a few layups where she’s usually automatic.
And while Michigan floundered, Ohio State pounced on every mistake. The Wolverines had just 12 turnovers on the game, but the Buckeyes took full advantage and grabbed 15 easy points off them. Even though Michigan controlled the glass with 21 offensive boards, it could only collect 16 second-chance points. Ohio State had 11 on just eight offensive rebounds. And when the Wolverines missed shots, the Buckeyes ran in transition and notched 17 fastbreak points. Michigan had none.
“Whatever we did, they were able to adjust to, whether that was defense or offense,” senior guard Akienreh Johnson said. “Their coach really adjusted. And then attack defenders that came off the bench, they attacked them immediately.”
At this point in the season, everything — justifiably or not — will be looked at through the lens of March. Teams across the country will have to answer to being “made for March.” In this context, critics could view the Wolverines’ struggles down the stretch as evidence that they aren’t built for postseason basketball.
In fairness, though, Michigan can hit those shots. It did in the previous two rounds of the Big Ten Tournament, and three close games in three days can be exhausting.
But from here on out, it won’t matter if the Wolverines can hit shots, or if they could have won.
Because if they don’t win, their season’s over.