INDIANAPOLIS — Michigan, up by four, faced a turning point. After a huge third quarter that turned a 10-point deficit into a six-point lead, Nebraska hit a pair of free throws to start the fourth quarter. The Wolverines needed an answer to hold onto the momentum.
Sophomore guard Amy Dilk’s pass was tipped as soon as it left her fingers, floating through the air into no man’s land. A turnover would be catastrophic in a game defined by momentum, but instead freshman guard Maddie Nolan found herself in the right spot, at the right time.
She stuck out two arms and gathered the ball, finding sophomore forward Naz Hillmon, who sniped freshman center Izabel Varejão. She turned, her layup banked in.
The two freshman, Nolan and Varejão, didn’t lead the team in scoring or rebounding in Thursday’s 81-75 victory over Nebraska, but rather gave the team what it needed, when it needed it.
Nolan, in the midst of Michigan’s 12-2 run to start the third quarter, reached into Ashtyn Veerbeek’s lap and took the ball, driving down the court, another big defensive play after the break. The Wolverines converted, the game tied for the first time since early in the first quarter.
The next possession, Nolan found herself alone, at the top of the arc. Four minutes earlier, on the first play of the half, she watched a wide open 3-point shot circle around the rim before falling out. This time, it hit nothing but net and Michigan found itself holding a lead, 47-44. It never looked back.
“Maddie’s one of those players that can score 25 points,” Varejão said. “But at the same time she does all the little things, rebounds every time, hustles, dives.”
Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico: “She was a difference maker for us. I think she was all over the place, she rebounded the ball exceptionally well, she got so many tips and deflections, she wound up with four steals, she made big free throws down the stretch, she defended lights out.”
Varejão, though, faced an even more daunting task: substituting for Hillmon. Her defense wasn’t a match for Hillmon’s, but she’s developed into a familiar sight. Her ability to make plays and spark offensive runs was reminiscent of Hillmon last year, an energy booster and a threat.
“To get another real true inside post presence and to give (Hillmon) a break sometimes from handling that bagging down low and to get (Varejão) down there and have (Hillmon) play off that sometimes is really important,” Barnes Arico said.
She ended the day with 12 points, Nolan finished with nine points, seven rebounds and four steals. But Thursday’s game marked something bigger.
All throughout the season, the question has been who will step up outside of the first five, who will emerge and take Michigan to the next level. Players, at times, would make their cases, individual performances poorly linked together, giving a taste of what could be, but never sustaining it.
Yet in the last few games, Varejão and Nolan have gotten incrementally better, slowly building to a point where they aren’t placeholders for injured or resting players, but rather impact players that can turn a game around.
Like they did against Nebraska.