LOUISVILLE, Ky. — It’s said that basketball is a game of runs.
In the Michigan women’s basketball team’s (22-11) 84-54 win over Kansas State, that statement couldn’t have been more true, as it used two lengthy scoring spurts and stingy defense to defeat the Wildcats (21-12) and set up a date with top-seeded Lousiville on Sunday.
In perhaps its best offensive performance of the season, the Wolverines saw nine different players score, with four finishing in double figures led by 17 from Hillmon. The team has proven throughout the course of the season that it has a multitude of ways it can score, and on Friday it finally looked like the well-oiled machine it had shown glimpses of becoming throughout the season.
It started with a three pointer from senior forward Nicole Munger to make the score 8-7. On the following possession, sophomore forward Kayla Robbins rebounded a Munger miss and scored on a nifty post move to give Michigan a 9-8 lead. She extended it to 12-8 one possession later after forcing a steal and converting an and-one finish in transition.
“It felt great to give my team a boost and clean up the boards when my teammates missed shots,” Robbins said.
On the ensuing possession, freshman forward Naz Hillmon scored inside off a nice feed from junior forward Akienreh Johnson to make the score 14-8, which Robbins extended to 16-8 after putting back an Amy Dilk miss in transition after a steal. The 12-0 run helped the Wolverines finish the first quarter with an 18-11 edge and a firm grasp on the game’s momentum, in large part because of the strong play of its bench.
“They came in and gave us an immediate spark,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “They can come in and make an immediate impact, and tonight, everybody got to see that.”
The Wildcats made a push in the second quarter when they hit three consecutive triples to make the score 26-23. The Wolverines, though, were quick to respond, finishing the quarter on a blistering 17-5 run that saw Munger score seven points and force two steals.
“Her energy on the defensive end, getting on the floor, rebounding, she does everything it takes to win the game,” Robbins said. “And we feed off of that.”
Michigan’s defense came alive in the second frame, routinely running a press and forcing the Wildcats to turn the ball over five times en route to a 43-28 lead.
“You saw the 17-5 (point) differential,” Munger said, “but it just started on the defensive end.”
In the third quarter, the Wolverines found themselves holding a 57-36 lead. Freshman point guard Amy Dilk combined with Hillmon to score ten of the team’s first 18 points in the frame. The team exerted its dominance down low, routinely notching tough finishes in the pain and earning trips to the free throw line. On the other end of the floor, Michigan’s defense shut Kansas State down from distance, not allowing a single make after giving up six in the first half alone.
“Limit the threes, limit the threes, limit the threes,” Barnes Arico told her team in the locker room at halftime.
Despite extending their edge to 23 after a tough finish inside by Hillmon, Barnes Arico wanted her squad to continue to pour it on, routinely cheering her girls on from the sideline as they continued to play scintillating defense, refusing to let the Wildcats find any life to grasp onto as it frantically searched for a way to kickstart their offense.
“She was reminding us that if it’s a game like this, it’s about us, not the scoreboard,” said sophomore forward Hailey Brown. “No matter what the score is, it’s all about us and making sure we’re getting better.”
Added sophomore guard Deja Church: “We just looked at the score (as) 0-0 and kept pushing.”
In the game’s final quarter, Michigan refused to take its foot off the gas pedal, at one point extending its lead to 30 after a three from Church. After Dilk connected on a triple to make the score 74-41, the only thing in question about the game’s outcome was the margin of victory as Barnes Arico emptied her bench with about five minutes remaining.
“That put a smile on my face probably more than anything else because those kids worked so hard through everything,” Barnes Arico said. “For them to be able to get on the court and perform was just great.”
After its best performance of the year, the only thing standing between the Wolverines and its first Sweet 16 berth in team history is top-seeded Louisville. While it will be a tough task, Michigan looks more than ready to bust a few brackets to make it happen.