The Michigan women’s basketball team faced a tall order, both literally and figuratively, when it faced No. 20 UCLA on Sunday. The Bruins (5-2) lost both of their contests to top-five teams by single digits, and are physically a noticeably tall team. That size was an issue for the Wolverines.
The Bruins started the game with a big lineup, throwing out 6-foot-3 forward Kacy Swain to match up with 6-foot-5 Michigan center Hallie Thome. UCLA subbed in Swain with 6-foot-4 Monique Billings to play alongside 6-foot-3 Paulina Hersler. Nine of the 12 active players on the Bruins’ roster are at least six feet tall, compared to the Wolverines’ four.
“They’re long, and they can run the floor,” Thome said. “They basically can pass to anyone on the court, and they can score. You could tell that they weren’t nervous when they stepped on the floor.”
Michigan (7-2) fought back with its own height in Thome, who scored a team-high 24 points, but the Wolverines fell, 86-77.
Michigan struggled to adjust to UCLA’s length, as sophomore guard Katelynn Flaherty missed her first three shots, including a wide-open layup. The Wolverines also adjusted to the Bruins’ three-quarter-court press, an element of Michigan’s game that it continues to implement in its own defensive agenda.
On both sides of the ball, Thome led the way.
“When (Thome) was out of the game, they really took advantage of the rebounding and the size difference,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “That definitely hurt us. She needs to be in the game for us, because we don’t have anyone else with that physical presence.”
After the Wolverines held a two-point lead at the end of the first quarter, the second quarter was no different, as the matchup remained a back-and-forth affair. About six minutes into the frame, Thome converted an and-1 to give Michigan a three-point lead. In the following possession, Bruins guard Kari Korver hit a deep 3-pointer to tie the score once again. The next time Korver got the ball, she converted from behind the arc again for her third 3-pointer of the day.
The Bruins’ other star guard, Jordin Canada, came into Sunday’s matchup averaging 19 points per game, but was held to only one by the end of the first half. While Canada was crucial for the Bruins in other ways, racking up seven rebounds and five assists, she still looked frustrated at times. With the band cooing, “O Canada!” in the middle of her free throw routine, she missed the next free throw, unable to get her shooting on track before the halftime break. Despite Canada’s slow start, UCLA led, 34-30, heading into the third quarter.
The Wolverines came out of the gate firing, making their first three shots. But a block ended the streak, directly leading to another three from Korver in transition. Three minutes later, freshman guard Boogie Brozoski tossed a rainbow pass from half court to Thome, who was cutting toward the basket for the fundamental layup. The players on the Michigan bench collectively jumped from their seats, down by just three. After a UCLA basket and two straight turnovers, the Bruins had their largest lead of the contest with 2:30 left in the third quarter at 10.
UCLA’s length continued to be an obstacle, as guards such as senior Madison Ristovski couldn’t dish the ball into the paint without getting the delivery tipped or stolen. As Ristovski and Brozoski struggled, the Bruins thrived off their mistakes, leading by nine going into the fourth quarter.
“Any mistake that we made, they made us pay for it,” Barnes Arico said. “I think that is experience. On our side, that’s a sign of our youth. … We looked young at times.”
With about seven minutes left in the final frame, Flaherty drove into the lane, but was blocked. The ball was deflected right into the hands of Ristovski, who immediately knocked down a 3. On the ensuing Wolverine possession, Thome knocked down another basket. Junior guard Siera Thompson had an opportunity to cut the lead to two, but missed the layup. Canada, who eventually found her rhythm, scored four straight, bringing the lead back up to eight.
“The little things, the turnovers at the end were what separated us,” Thome said.
UCLA didn’t look back from there, as Billings dominated the paint on both sides of the ball, finishing with 20 points and 11 rebounds. The Wolverines were outrebounded, 45-27.
“We didn’t rebound great like we usually do,” Flaherty said. “That hurt us, and we tried to box out, and that’s something going forward we need to work on … Going in (to the paint), we got a lot of our shots blocked.”
It was fitting that the contest ended on a UCLA block. The Wolverines lost to a more talented and, ultimately, a much larger team.
“We always talk about being better tomorrow than we were today,” Barnes Arico said. “I think we’re always trying to get better. … If each one of us can get a little bit better, we can be a lot more successful against quality opponents. That’s what we try to do every day and will do from here on out.”