Down by eight with under 10 seconds remaining in the second quarter of Sunday’s game, senior guard Akienreh Johnson drove down the right side of the key, looking to cut into Rutgers’ lead.
After an abysmal first offensive half, a bucket would send the Wolverines to the locker room at the Rutgers Athletic Center down by just six, with an opportunity to regroup and come out more motivated in the third quarter.
But in came Mael Gilles. The Scarlet Knights’ forward swiped the ball away and found guard Arella Guirantes in transition, who drew a foul on Johnson and made one of two free throws. Though the play didn’t end Michigan’s chances of a comeback, it was indicative of the shorthanded Wolverines’ offensive struggles throughout Sunday’s game.
Rutgers dominated, 62-41, thanks to its stifling defense and Michigan’s sloppy, turnover-prone offense — especially in the first half.
“That was the difference obviously early on when they got the lead in the first half,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “(It was) our turnovers, and our turnovers were leading to easy buckets, and I felt like they only really scored on our turnovers early. … They had 12 points off of them at half.”
In recent games, the Wolverines had been fairly successful on offense, thanks to a versatile high-low attack between sophomore forward Naz Hillmon and the team’s outside shooters. It featured a pretty simple formula: Feed Hillmon in the paint, draw double-teams and kick it out to the open player. Often, Hillmon was so effective that she could score against the double-team anyway.
That just wasn’t working on Sunday. With Hillmon limited after suffering an upper-body injury Thursday against Northwestern, the Wolverines’ offense stagnated. She was held to just five points — her lowest total all season — and Michigan in turn scored its lowest total since March 2013, when it tallied just 40 points in the final game of Barnes Arico’s first season.
“I think, as much as (Hillmon) was out there at times — and she did try her hardest and did her best — you know she’s not herself,” Barnes Arico said. “You can tell she’s in pain, and you can tell she tried to go out there and do everything she could to help us be successful today, but she didn’t have that same smile on her face, and the same energy that she does on a regular basis.”
After a slow first half, the Scarlet Knights’ offense found its rhythm in the second half. Guirantes — their leading scorer — led this attack, hitting jumpers from everywhere en route to a 15-point second half. She finished the game with 24 points.
Meanwhile, without Hillmon’s normally dominant production, the Wolverines struggled to get anything from inside. Attempts to drive to the basket often ended in forced passes and turnovers, and the few inside shots they did get up were either blocked or rimmed out. Rutgers tallied nine blocks on the game, and Michigan went a poor 10-for-26 on layups.
“The RAC — and I’ve played here a lot … it’s an incredibly difficult place to play,” Barnes Arico said. “And Rutgers at home is very different than Rutgers on the road, and I think the physicality kind of took us out of what we wanted to do early.
“ … I’m not really making excuses, we obviously know that we have got to get better, but this has been a little bit of a stretch for us in terms of, you know, the games we’ve been playing in this short period of time, with the turnaround, with the injuries added to that.”
Sunday’s loss was the toughest part of a brutal stretch on the Wolverines schedule — their third game in just seven days. With their best player not at 100 percent and just nine healthy players on the roster, a loss shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise.
But the way it happened doesn’t bode well.