On Thursday, Michigan lost its first game of the season, falling 77-81 to Ohio State. Junior forward Naz Hillmon had a historic performance with 50 points, but the Wolverines couldn’t find the win in the end.
In a normal season, the first loss would sting for a few days only to be forgotten after the next game. But this isn’t a typical season. Michigan’s defeat may linger a little longer as the Wolverines embark on a 14-day pause due to positive cases of the novel COVID-19 B.1.1.7 variant within the Michigan athletic department.
The directive is just one of a string of obstacles Michigan has already faced. In fact, it isn’t even the first break the team’s dealt with. The Wolverines faced a 22-day break in December after canceling games against Illinois and Penn State in accordance with COVID-19 protocols. When Michigan returned on Dec. 31 against Wisconsin, it seemed as though they hadn’t missed a beat, defeating them, 92-49, with only eight players eligible.
The Wolverines struggled to field a full team against Northwestern too. Conditions worsened against Nebraska on Jan. 7, when junior guard Leigha Brown, the team’s second-leading scorer, was absent due to COVID-19 protocols.
The break will mean that the Wolverines will miss important games against Purdue, two against Michigan State, Rutgers, Minnesota and Maryland. If everything goes to plan, Michigan can return on Feb. 11 against Purdue.
Since November, the Wolverines have been preparing for an unconventional season — temporary shutdowns seemed likely from the start.
“We saw that basketball could actually be taken away, and we were disappointed with the way that the season finished last year,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said on Nov. 25 following Michigan’s win over Central Michigan, their first game of the season. “We didn’t get to play in the NCAA Tournament. We thought we had an awesome squad returning but we are so happy with the ability to be able to play today.”
Although the team has faced ineligibility due to COVID-19 protocols in the past, as of Saturday, the team didn’t have any active cases.
The majority of the Wolverines’ starters have remained healthy to this point and a pause like this could allow for Leigha Brown to return without missing any more games. Even though Michigan is on pause now, the team understands that COVID-19 can still impact the remainder of the season.
“We understand that this is a different year, unprecedented times and we’re just really focusing on next man up,” junior forward Naz Hillmon said Jan. 3 following Michigan’s win over Northwestern. “We have numbers called being there ready to play and we really try to not take our games for granted. You never know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”
In what has thus far been Barnes Arico’s most successful season in her nine years with the Wolverines, Michigan’s experience has come to the fore. The Wolverines were undefeated before their matchup against Ohio State, currently sitting at No. 12 in the most recent AP Polls. Core players like Hillmon, junior guard Amy Dilk and fifth-year senior Akienreh Johnson have all stepped up only for their future as a Wolverine to be uncertain.
Michigan has already proven this team is capable of anything when healthy. Once the pause is lifted, the Wolverines will try to continue their strong start.
Right now, it’s just a question of when — and if — Michigan can get back on the court.