In the final moments of the game, up by two and on the heels of an 8-0 run from Nebraska, junior forward Naz Hillmon earned a vital offensive rebound and put back the second-chance layup, snapping Michigan’s drought. This was Hillmon’s game and with the ball in her hands, she controlled the outcome. She’d lead the Wolverines across the finish line if she had to, bulldozing down the Cornhuskers defense. But on their next possession, the Huskers scored again.
A competitive match up from the start, No. 15 Michigan (8-0 overall, 3-0 Big Ten) looked confident heading into its third Big Ten Matchup against Nebraska (5-4, 3-3). But with junior wing Leigha Brown’s COVID-19 absence, the Wolverines leaned heavily on Hillmon on its way to a 64-62 win.
The Cornhuskers, previously home to Leigha Brown, pressured the Wolverines into their most competitive game of the season. In Brown’s place, junior guard Danielle Rauch took her spot as Michigan searched for someone to fill her role as a scorer.
Hillmon owned the first quarter, scoring 16 points. She came up big in the absence of Leigha Brown, scoring long jumpers, layups and free-throws. Senior forward Hailey Brown contributed to the scoreboard as well, ending the quarter with six points. The Wolverines struggled from outside the arc the rest of the way, making it difficult to lengthen their lead.
“We knew that we were going to have to get Naz the ball as much as possible,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “(Junior guard) Amy (Dilk) had a really great game against them last time being able to get in the paint doing what she did tonight. We were really able to take advantage of that as well.”
Nebraska continued to press Michigan, with the Wolverines losing the lead for the first time halfway through the second quarter. Only to be regained by Dilk, who became the third scorer of the game after 15 minutes with a 3-pointer. The Cornhuskers continued to make it tough to rebound, swarming the paint with red bodies the entire half.
Other players had to make up for the lack of team scoring, with fifth year senior Akienreh Johnson and Dilk stepping up late in the second quarter. Johnson contributed two layups, ending with four points. Dilk finished from the line and a jumper, ending the half with six points.
“I like the game to come to me,” Dilk said. “Just staying aggressive and keep playing my game and keep taking the open and not getting discouraged.”
Dilk’s revival in the second quarter still wasn’t enough. For the first time this season, Michigan found itself down at half, 35-34.
Despite outbursts in the second quarter, Hillmon’s teammates struggled to help her. No other Wolverine shot higher than 25% from the field and only Dilk scored in double digits with 11.
The Wolverines faced a real battle. Dilk’s plan to drive at the Cornhuskers led to rebounding opportunities for Hillmon or points from the line. Hillmon’s ability to gain second chances offensively and limit Nebraska from extra possessions were key. With sophomore guard Maddie Nolan and Hailey Brown also fighting for offensive rebounds, the Cornhuskers fouled often — giving the Wolverines chances from the line.
But again, those opportunities were squashed. Only one player for Michigan shot over 50% from the free throw line, a stark departure from the Wolverines’ 73% team average.
Still, Michigan increased their lead late in the third quarter, with Hillmon again taking the team on her back, scoring nine points. She continued to show how crucial her scoring from the free throw line will be on nights where the ball isn’t going for those around her.
The game tilted back and forth, with Nebraska showing urgency offensively. Hillmon continued to show her worth and why she’s not only one of the best players in the Big Ten, but the nation, ending the game with 35 points and 22 assists. Her final rebound and layup continued the momentum Michigan needed to seek out the victory.
“I was able to get some offensive rebounds prior to that specific moment,” Hillmon said. “Just knowing that I had to get after everyone and knowing that the player who was guarding me off of the rebound had a couple of fouls and she probably would not be willing to commit that foul.”
With a key contributor to the team out, Michigan needed its experience and grit to continue their winning record. With two points dividing the teams going into the final minute of the game, Leigha Brown’s new teammates had to stay focused to defeat her old ones.
As the Nebraska bench pounded their feet on the floor, and with the game on the line, Johnson stepped up to the free throw line. The senior captain could stem the bleeding and win Michigan’s ugliest game of the season. Two free throws iced the game with 10 seconds left and Michigan escaped with a win that made a program record 8-0 start.