Sunday afternoon in Champaign, Ill., two teams on very different trajectories crossed paths.
The Michigan women’s basketball team had won five consecutive games to make its case for the NCAA Tournament. On the other side, Illinois was on a downward spiral, losing 13 of its last 15 games.
And, despite flashes where it appeared that the Fighting Illini (2-13 Big Ten, 10-16 overall) might get the upset they needed, the Wolverines (9-6, 18-9) eventually pulled away with a 70-56 victory.
After leading for the entire second quarter, Michigan’s grip on the game loosened early in the third. The Wolverines conceded two jumpers from the left block — as well as a pair of free throws — and trailed, 30-29, just over two minutes into the third.
Michigan gave up seven offensive rebounds in that third frame, and as a result, the game stayed close. But then junior forward Kayla Robbins — who finished with a team-high 15 points — stepped up, grabbing two steals and scoring seven points to give her team necessary breathing room. From then on, the Wolverines widened the gap.
“Kayla Robbins is an incredible basketball player,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico to MGoBlueTV. “She does so many things that other players on our team don’t do. She has an incredible motor to the basketball, she rebounds the ball exceptionally well, she’s becoming more and more confident on the rip-and-go to the basket.
“She’s a great defender. … She has been working incredibly hard lately and it’s so nice for her to be seeing a lot of positives and really impacting our team.”
Early in the game, the Fighting Illini excelled from beyond the arc — hitting two triples in the first two minutes to take a 6-0 lead. By the first media timeout, they notched a third 3-pointer and led 11-7.
The Wolverines had a meaningful moment before the first media timeout. Senior center Hallie Thome scored from the post on a routine move, but the basket’s significance was anything but. It made her the third 2,000-point scorer in program history.
“Oh my goodness,” Barnes Arico said. “2,000 points is incredible. That is not easy to do. 1,000 is not easy to do. To have the ability to score 2,000 over the course of your career is really special, and Hallie has been special to our program from the minute she stepped on campus. She’s just unstoppable.”
When the timeout ended, Michigan’s streak began.
Freshman forward Naz Hillmon and Robbins checked in, and with them, the Wolverines brought a near-full-court defensive press.
For a while, Illinois had no answer. The Fighting Illini struggled to make it to half-court, and by the time they did, there was often limited time left on the shot clock, leading to rushed shots.
Michigan capitalized on the defensive pressure, going on an 8-0 run to end the quarter. Robbins was crucial to that run, accounting for the latter half of those eight points to give her team a 15-11 lead. That lead grew to 10 points during the second quarter.
Illinois soon fought back amid the second quarter, led by forwards Alex Wittinger and Mackenzie Blazek. Wittinger converted a jumper and a triple. And then, nearing the end of the half, Blazek hit back-to-back jumpers to cut the Wolverines’ lead to 29-24 by intermission, but Michigan’s defense ultimately helped the team prevail.
And at the end of the day, the two teams continued in opposite directions.