The Michigan women’s basketball team has had its fair share of surprises this season, especially its 17-point comeback against Iowa two weeks ago.
But this time around, a comeback appeared to be out of the question no matter how hard the Wolverines played.
In Sunday’s game against Nebraska, Michigan led for just 22 seconds after the opening basket by freshman center Hallie Thome. But within five minutes, the Wolverines trailed by 15. The Cornhuskers’ offense was unstoppable in the opening stanza, and Michigan did very little to stop it.
Midway through the second quarter, the Wolverines (3-5 Big Ten, 11-8 overall) brought the game to within three points but couldn’t finish down the stretch as the Cornhuskers (5-3, 14-5) escaped with a 93-81 victory in Ann Arbor.
“We can’t be giving up 93 points a game,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “That’s like the NBA here. … Twenty-eight points in one quarter is just way too much. We gotta get better.”
After just three minutes in the second half, Michigan never cut the deficit to single digits. Against forward Jessica Shepard and center Allie Havers, the Wolverines were outscored and outrebounded. Though Havers only flirted with a double-double, Shepard finished with 35 points and collected 20 boards.
Meanwhile, Thome — who scored 24 points alongside just six rebounds — fouled out of the game in the fourth quarter as Nebraska continued to pack the paint. In fact, three other Michigan players reached three fouls and just junior guard Siera Thompson and sophomore guard Katelynn Flaherty hit double-digit scoring otherwise, with 12 and 14, respectively.
Without their ability to drive in the paint, guarded by the Cornhuskers’ best bigs, Thompson — who reached 1,000 career points — and Flaherty had to shoot from the outside and rely on guard-to-guard screens.
“They double-teamed at times, which is an area where (Katelynn’s) gonna get better at being able to pass out of those situations,” Barnes Arico said. “But she pretty much, from an offensive standpoint, handled their pressure and did a decent job against them. But we gotta get multiple people that are able to do that.”
The difference between a win and a loss was the opening minutes of the game, which spelled disaster for Michigan right from the start. Smart ball movement and crisp passing gave Thome the ball inside the paint on the first possession for a layup. But soon enough, Nebraska showed its offense was untamable.
In the opening four and a half minutes, the Cornhuskers didn’t miss a shot from anywhere on the court. En route to a 15-point lead, they went 8-for-8 from the field and 5-for-5 beyond the arc. Nebraska quickly jumped to 21 points, while Michigan added a pair of free throws by Thome and just one basket from Flaherty — prompting Barnes Arico to call a timeout.
The Wolverines’ original plan was to lock down Shepard, but guard Kyndal Clark quickly emerged as the Cornhuskers’ star. She scored all five of her team’s 3-pointers in the first half and finished the game with 15 points.
She was the crucial element for the Cornhuskers’ huge start, forcing Michigan’s defense to instead limit Clarks’ chances — she didn’t score in the second half. That change, though, opened up Shepard.
“It’s kind of like we’re at the point now, it’s ‘pick your poison,’ ” Barnes Arico said. “Totally, our whole defensive responsibilities and being able to get a stop, being able to get multiple stops, we gotta become better as a unit on the defensive end.”
Michigan strung together two scoring runs — a 30-second 8-0 run in the first quarter and a 7-0 run in the second — to bring to the game within 10 points by the break, but the defense couldn’t hold the Cornhuskers.
Nebraska had made a large enough statement at the start of the game to prove they wouldn’t give this one up. The damage had already been dealt.
“At spurts, we play hard, and sometimes it’s too late,” Thompson said. “I think that’s been the case the last few games. We come out, dig ourselves a hole and try to fight back, so we just have to start playing hard from the beginning of the game.
“We always say, ‘We’re never out of it,’ but I think we’re at the point where we don’t wanna fight back anymore.”