Amy Dilk stood at the top of the 3-point arc one minute into the second half and surveyed her options.
The sophomore guard tried to swing a pass to junior forward Hailey Brown, but Penn State guard Shay Hagans read it from the start. She quickly jumped the pass and took it the other way for a layup to put the Nittany Lions up by two. It was the first time they led since the first minute of the game.
Michigan quickly rebounded. Two minutes later, the game now tied, senior guard Akienreh Johnson took a charge, and on the subsequent offensive possession, found a cutting Dilk on an easy give-and-go to take a two-point lead. The Wolverines (19-9 overall, 10-7 Big Ten) proceeded to go on a 33-7 run over the next 10 minutes to defeat the Nittany Lions (7-21, 1-16), 80-66, on Thursday.
“I thought we took care of the ball a lot better in the second half,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “I thought we found each other and made some extra passes. We had 24 assists on the night, so I think once we relaxed and settled in, and were able to figure out what they were trying to do on the defensive end, we were able to be a lot more successful.”
Heading into the contest, the Wolverines’ NCAA Tournament chances looked strong, and the win wouldn’t do much to improve them. But a loss to a Penn State team at the bottom of the Big Ten could have been detrimental, and halfway through the game, it looked like Michigan could cough up what should have been an easy win.
In the first quarter, the Wolverines took a 10-point lead on the back of three 3-pointers. Guard Niyeh Frazier was the only player who could get into a rhythm for the Nittany Lions — she scored seven without missing a shot, while the rest of the team shot just 25 percent. Through one quarter, the game was as advertised — an easy night for Michigan and a chance for a tune-up before the postseason.
The second quarter told a different story. Michigan’s half-court offense struggled greatly, providing Penn State with ample opportunity to get back in the game. The Wolverines committed 11 turnovers in the second quarter alone.
While the Nittany Lions shot just 35 percent in the quarter, the extra opportunities they got from Michigan’s turnovers allowed them to cut the deficit to three by halftime, led by 10 from Frazier. The Wolverines struggled to score when they couldn’t get out in transition, and finished with just 10 points in the quarter — six from sophomore forward Naz Hillmon. What started out looking like a comfortable win became one Michigan had to grind out to prevent a bad loss.
Halftime gave the Wolverines a chance to regroup, and they responded. Despite the slow start that allowed Penn State to take a lead, Michigan’s ball security and passing in the second half was much better than it had been in the first. The Wolverines came out motivated, clearly aware of how devastating a loss would be.
“We had to figure out how to handle the double post of Naz, and Amy’s being pressured 94 feet, where’s she getting her pressure releases from,” Barnes Arico said. “So those were some adjustments that we tried to talk about at halftime to help Naz and Amy out of those situations.”
In the second half, the Wolverines turned the ball over just five times, while quick passing allowed them to get easy baskets in the half-court offense. Hillmon led the way, scoring 14 of her 26 points, while freshman guard Maddie Nolan added 10, including back-to-back 3-pointers in the third quarter that extended the lead from eight to 14.
“I really tried to run the floor today,” Hillmon said. “That’s one of my strong suits, getting the ball up and down the floor and getting easy paint touches.”
Because of a sloppy first half, Michigan couldn’t relax in a game that shouldn’t have been much of a challenge. Instead, it had to buckle down and correct its mistakes to avoid what could have been a crushing blow to its postseason chances.
It wasn’t always easy. But the Wolverines survived.