INDIANAPOLIS — Amy Dilk’s free throw hit the front of the rim and bounced out, her second consecutive miss. The Michigan women’s basketball team was struggling to stop Nebraska and needed any points it could get.
But junior forward Hailey Brown got around a defender and grabbed the rebound. She put it back up for an and-one layup, and drained the ensuing free throw to cut the Nebraska lead to single digits.
For the first time in Thursday night’s game, the Wolverines had life.
The Cornhuskers responded with a 3-pointer, but Michigan managed to cut the deficit to eight at halftime — a deficit that was as large as 14 earlier in the second quarter.
Coming out of halftime, those last three possessions of the first half had energized the Wolverines (20-10 overall, 10-8 Big Ten). They scored the first eight points of the second half and never looked back, en route to a 81-75 win over Nebraska (17-13, 7-11) in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament.
Michigan’s offense looked as good as it had all game, but it was a defensive improvement that allowed the Wolverines to come back. The open shots that the Cornhuskers consistently found in the first half disappeared. Michigan forced three turnovers in the first 3:30 of the third quarter and turned those into seven points. Freshman guard Maddie Nolan and senior guard Akienreh Johnson led the stout defense, each racking up two steals in the third quarter.
“We weren’t getting stops,” Johnson said. “We weren’t playing defense. We weren’t getting rebounds. We weren’t doing the things that make us a successful team.
“I had no rebounds and my player had 11 points, so I really made sure that I stepped in in the second half and tried to make sure I got rebounds and tried to limit the opponent that I was guarding.”
On the offensive end Dilk led the way. Sophomore forward Naz Hillmon got into early foul trouble and had to sit for eight minutes in the first half, and her return in the second quarter gave the Wolverines a jolt. But Dilk shined in the third quarter, lifting the Michigan offense to a level that Nebraska couldn’t match. The Wolverines led by six heading into the fourth, backed by seven points and three assists from Dilk
“Any time Amy’s hot, it just boosts the momentum for us because as great of a passer as she is, she’s a great scorer,” Hillmon said. “So now you have to space out the floor. … Now you can’t double. Now you can’t face guard or do all these other things that happen to us when she’s not hot.”
After outscoring Nebraska by 14 points in the third quarter, Michigan was in control for the rest of the game. It never led by less than five after the nine-minute mark of the fourth quarter. Dilk added six of her 22 points as the Wolverines shot 7-for-13 from the floor.
Early on, it looked like Michigan would fall to the Cornhuskers for the second time this season.
With Hillmon on the bench for nearly half of the first half, the Wolverines’ offense struggled, scoring just six points without her.
“She brings so much attention to herself that it leaves other people open with the ability to score the basketball and make decisions,” Dilk said. “So her presence on the court is obviously such an impact to our team that with her on the bench, we were struggling.”
Nebraska, on the other hand, found an offensive rhythm once she left the floor. It scored 23 points in that span and led by 14 when she re-entered with 7:30 left in the first half. Michigan couldn’t contain forwards Leigha Brown and Isabelle Bourne, who scored 11 points each in the first half.
When Hillmon returned, Michigan’s offense returned to its usual form, but it still couldn’t get stops on the defensive end.
Prior to Dilk and a defensive turnaround leading the Wolverines’ third-quarter surge, it looked as though the game would be defined by their inability to score without Hillmon on the floor.
But with a motivated squad coming out of halftime and Hillmon on the floor for the entirety of the second half, Michigan played one of its best 20 minutes of the season to advance.