Late in the third quarter of Thursday’s game against Purdue, the Michigan women’s basketball team saw the game slipping away. Thanks to a poor shooting quarter, its once-15-point lead had dwindled down to just six. With a chance to stop the bleeding, junior forward Hailey Brown pulled up for a 3-pointer from the top of the key.
The shot missed, but the play wasn’t over. Sophomore forward Naz Hillmon grabbed the ball off the rim, warded off a Boilermaker defender and sank the putback layup to extend the Wolverines’ lead to eight.
Though that basket was far from the dagger, it represented how Michigan’s success in the last two games has stemmed from its dominance on the offensive glass. Hillmon’s board was one of 17 offensive rebounds for the Wolverines in their 66-63 win over Purdue — a performance that built off Michigan’s 12 offensive rebounds in last Sunday’s 78-63 beatdown of Iowa. Those rebounds led to 11 crucial second-chance points in each game.
“I think it honestly puts more pressure on Purdue,” Brown said. “Because if everyone’s crashing hard and we’re getting offensive rebounds, they can’t leak out, they can’t get their transition offense, they have to come up with a defensive rebound. I mean (Hillmon and senior guard Akienreh Johnson), they’re great at rebounding in general and it really helps the team.”
Against the Hawkeyes, the Wolverines’ offensive rebounding helped them maintain a comfortable lead and easily fight off any comeback attempts. After a fast-paced, 22-point first quarter gave Michigan an 11-point lead, the offense slowed down in the second, shooting just 40 percent from the field. As Iowa chipped away at the Wolverines’ lead — getting it as low as six points — it was a pair of putback layups from Hillmon that kept Michigan squarely ahead.
Hillmon dominating on the offensive glass is nothing new. Her 4.4 offensive rebounds per game are ninth-best in the country, and she secured five and six against Iowa and Purdue, respectively.
But Johnson’s six offensive rebounds made the bigger difference against the Boilermakers. With three of those rebounds coming in the third quarter, where the Wolverines shot a poor 6-for-17 from the field, Johnson’s rebounds kept Michigan’s offense from falling apart completely and prevented a full comeback from Purdue.
“Once (senior forward Kayla Robbins) went down, (Johnson) knew she was gonna have to take on more, and she’s embraced that role,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “She’s been outstanding, and even when she’s not scoring like the way she is, she’s rebounding and she’s defending, and those are two of the most important things for me as a coach.”
While the Wolverines’ offensive rebounding kept their lead comfortable against the Hawkeyes, it may have won the game against the Boilermakers. Outside of the second-chance points, the offensive rebounds took pressure off the Michigan defense and gave shooters the confidence to shoot 3-pointers. Even if they missed, they knew there was a good chance their teammates would get the rebound. With that confidence, they shot 7-for-15 from three, an improvement on their season average of 32.4 percent.
With the Wolverines entering the home stretch of the Big Ten season, each win becomes more significant as they continue to build their tournament resume. And with the grind of a tough Big Ten schedule, Michigan will almost certainly have more moments when shots aren’t falling. If it continues to secure offensive rebounds, it should be able to withstand those moments.
If not, then close games like the one against Purdue will have different results.