Just one minute into Sunday’s game against Nebraska, senior forward Kayla Robbins went down with an ugly-looking injury, later determined to be a torn ACL which would end her season.
For the Michigan women’s basketball team, everything else in that moment paled in comparison to the health of its second leading scorer and captain. But after an emotional break in the game’s action, Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico was faced with the difficult decision of how to replace Robbins’ minutes.
The Wolverines’ two starting wings — Robbins and senior Akienreh Johnson — both averaged over 27 minutes per game entering Sunday, and neither had missed a game all season. As a result, none of Michigan’s bench wings had played extended minutes against a power conference opponent.
Barnes Arico’s choice to fill Robbins’ role was sophomore guard Danielle Rauch. Rauch — typically the backup point guard to sophomore Amy Dilk — hadn’t played more than nine minutes in a Big Ten game. Sunday, she was called upon for 32. And she made the most of them.
While Rauch’s offensive contributions were a step down from what Robbins usually gives the Wolverines — five points to Robbins’ per-game average of 11.6 — she played smart and did what the team needed her to do. She took care of the ball, with zero turnovers, and looked to distribute when she didn’t have a shot, giving opportunities to Michigan’s more dynamic scorers.
“I didn’t realize how much she had played in the game until I looked at the stat sheet,” Johnson said. “She looked like she was a person that averaged 30 minutes. She never got tired. She was talking consistently, doing a great job on offense and defense.”
With three minutes left in the game, Dilk fouled out and the Cornhuskers made both free throws to extend their lead to seven, in a game that was tied just three minutes earlier. It seemed that the loss of Dilk was the nail in the coffin to the Wolverines’ chances of pulling out a win.
But Rauch wouldn’t let Michigan go down so easily. On the ensuing possession, she drained a 3-pointer and yelled to the bench, giving the Wolverines life. Two possessions later, she found sophomore forward Naz Hillmon in the paint for a layup. On the next one, she dished it out to junior forward Hailey Brown, who knocked down a 3-pointer that cut the Nebraska lead to three.
Michigan would end up losing by three, but Rauch kept them in the game until the final possession, even after it seemed out of reach just minutes earlier.
To onlookers, Rauch’s high-quality 32 minutes may have been a surprise given her previous playing time, but to those inside the program, it was the expectation. Her teammates consistently describe her as one of the hardest-working players on the team — the type of player who is constantly in the gym on off days, putting up tons of shots to put herself in a position to contribute when needed.
“I just think that I train the same way all the time to be prepared for whatever opportunity that I’m given,” Rauch said. “On any given night I don’t know if it’s gonna be three minutes, 10 minutes or 30 minutes. Always prepare yourself for whatever opportunity you’re gonna get.”
Both Johnson and Rauch made it clear: Nobody can replace Robbins, but Michigan’s season doesn’t end without her. Players who haven’t been asked to do much more than play smart for short spurts with a starter on the bench will have to put points on the board and contribute for extended periods of time.
Rauch’s play on Sunday gave the Wolverines confidence that they found one of those players.