EVANSTON — Welsh-Ryan Arena exploded, again. The Wolverines’ work on the offensive end quickly forgotten, the Wildcats answered in a resounding, soul-sucking move.
It was a torturous pattern in Thursday night’s 81-73 loss to No. 23 Northwestern (18-3 overall, 8-2 Big Ten) for the Michigan women’s basketball team (13-7, 4-5). The Wolverines continuously found themselves in a five-to-six-point hole, occasionally poking their heads up and snagging a lead. But every time they fought back, the Wildcats hammered them down.
Early in the first quarter, though, the game seemed on its way for a repeat of Michigan’s last contest against a ranked opponent.
Michigan’s starting lineup could barely handle defending senior Abbie Wolf. Northwestern’s switches off the ball left sophomore guard Amy Dilk — and at times sophomore guard Danielle Rauch — on the much larger Wildcat center. There were easy shots for Wolf, until Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico made a quick switch by putting in her own center, Izabel Varejão.
The freshman’s introduction stopped the bleeding on the inside, while also offering an offensive spark. She gave the Wolverines its first true sign of offense in the first quarter, scoring a quick four points and gathering another assist.
“Our best is when we’re playing zone with our hands up,” Dilk said. “(Varejão), she’s the biggest one on the court with her wingspan, and I think tonight she finally realized, ‘If I play with my hands up I’m gonna get tips,’ and she did a great job of that. Our two guards up top were doing a great job of that. It was making them change the angles of passes, which slowed them down just a half second.”
But Varejão could do nothing to help the emergence of the Wildcats’ outside shooters. Senior Abi Scheid drained two threes, and after the second Barnes Arico was livid — the shooter was Varejão’s to close out on, but she didn’t.
At the end of the first quarter, it looked like the game would go down as another culmination of turnovers and poor defending of the 3-point line for Michigan. It committed eight turnovers in the first quarter, while Northwestern shot 60 percent from three.
A fiery Barnes Arico leaned into her players in between quarters, but the results were elusive for the first five minutes of the second quarter.
“We were just definitely trying to pick each other up,” sophomore forward Naz Hillmon said. “And talking about how we still have the opportunity to get out there and hustle, and play really hard, and we all need to focus in and make sure that we’re playing hard from start to finish.”
Added Barnes Arico: “We need to regroup, we had just talked about it in the locker room, we just need to regroup, and we just need to settle in, and we gotta chip away. And I thought we did, I thought our focus after that first quarter was really good, and we were able to regroup and make it a game down the stretch.”
And then, down, 30-21, with five minutes to go in the half, Varejão came back in.
The offense opened up, and the defense locked down. A 14-6 run ensued, giving Michigan its first lead of the game with 1:04 left in the half, after freshman guard Michelle Sidor stole the ball, and Varejão drained a layup.
“I thought our post really could take advantage of them, and that’s why we went with that big lineup of (Varejão), (senior forward) Hailey Brown and Naz Hillmon,” Barnes Arico said. “I thought that really helped take advantage of the inside, and I thought (Hillmon) did a really great job inside as well.”
After forcing a bad buzzer-beater shot from Northwestern to end the half, the bench — and Barnes Arico — erupted, ending the quarter on a much different note than the last one.
Neck and neck for most of the third quarter, Michigan let the Wildcats pull away for a quick six-point lead at the end of the quarter. They wouldn’t look back, and the distance was stretched in the fourth.
Wolf couldn’t be defended and neither could guard Lindsey Pulliam, who pulled up for jumpers from every corner of the court. She muscled Sidor under the basket, made corner threes and drained fadeaways all over to close out the game.
Unlike the first quarter, it wasn’t the Wolverines’ mistakes that gave Northwestern the lead. It was two unstoppable players.