After taking a proverbial punch in the gut by losing to No. 17 Michigan State on Wednesday, the Michigan women’s basketball team had to pick itself up in time for a matchup against Illinois.
Sunday, the Wolverines dealt the punches, downing the Big Ten’s last-place team, 96-83.
“Going into MSU, we didn’t play how we wanted to,” said freshman center Hallie Thome. “So coming out today, we knew we had to pick it up. As you saw from the start, we had ourselves together, and knew we needed to get this W.”
Michigan (5-7 Big Ten, 13-10 overall) began the game with a four-guard lineup to match up with the Fighting Illini’s similar starting five. This allowed freshman guard Boogie Brozoski to make the first start of her career.
With quicker feet on the floor, the Wolverines turned up the defensive intensity early, forcing Illinois (1-11, 8-15) to commit four turnovers in the first four minutes. With the swipes and corralled loose balls, Michigan turned the Illini’s errors into a nine-point lead. Illinois added insult to injury with sloppy ball handling, turning the ball over five more times in the first quarter to fall behind, 27-17.
“I think having a four-guard lineup makes it easy for us to press and pressure the ball,” said sophomore guard Katelynn Flaherty. “We have a motor and energy and emotion. In the beginning of games, we’ve gotten off to bad starts and we were all over the floor, and our guard lineup was quick today.”
Meanwhile, Flaherty — who has been getting off to slow starts in recent games — was almost perfect from the floor. She racked up 14 points in the first stanza alone on 6-for-7 shooting.
Flaherty scored her 16th point with 3:56 left in the second quarter. With that basket, she became the 26th player in program history to score 1,000 points. She is just the second player to reach the mark by her sophomore season. She would go on to earn a career-high 36 points.
While Flaherty and the rest of the Wolverines were lighting up the scoreboard, the Illini struggled, knocking down just nine field goals in the first half. They frequently missed shots down low and killed any momentum with 11 first-half turnovers. Illinois shot 39 percent in the first half, but was down 48-36 at halftime after shooting 14-for-14 from the free throw line.
In comparison, Michigan shot 59 percent, bolstered by 21 points off of turnovers — most of them layups in transition.
“We picked up, pressed and were super aggressive from the start,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “In the first half, that transition off of those forced turnovers and easy buckets really helped us to establish a presence and gain a lead pretty early.”
The 12-point lead seemed much larger, as the Wolverines seemed to control nearly every facet of the game, outshooting and outhustling their opponent.
The Wolverines took care of the ball in the first quarter, but Illinois’ turnovers carried over to Michigan in the second quarter. The Wolverines gave the ball away 10 times in the half, allowing the Illini to stay relatively close behind.
Illinois cut the deficit to single digits three minutes into the third quarter and added onto it with a 3-pointer. But Flaherty halted the run on her own, nailing back-to-back 3s to put Michigan back up by 12. Along with Flaherty, the Wolverines’ post players were integral in building on the lead. Senior forward Kelsey Mitchell started 4-for-6 in the paint, and Thome started a perfect 5-for-5, missing only one of her eight shots from the charity stripe.
“When I go to the free throw line, I can’t think much,” Thome said. “I just gotta do it, take my time, and make sure I’m all good.”
The Illini cut the lead inside 10 again with a minute left in the third, trailing, 71-64, going into the fourth quarter. But thanks to a combined 61 points from Thome and Flaherty, the lead never dipped below seven, as Michigan maintained a comfortable lead until the final buzzer.