Hailey Brown couldn’t miss. The sophomore forward was hitting three-pointers of varying difficulty, from all over the floor.
Within a span of five minutes, Brown single-handedly turned Sunday’s game on its head in the second quarter — from a nine-point deficit to a one-point lead for the Wolverines by the end of the half.
Catalyzed by Brown’s performance, the Michigan women’s basketball team (16-9 overall, 7-6 Big Ten) escaped State College with a 66-62 win over Penn State (10-13, 3-9).
The beginning of the game could not have gone much worse for the Wolverines. Without freshman point guard Amy Dilk, sidelined with a knee injury, turnovers plagued Michigan’s offense.
The Lady Lions lined up in a 1-2-2 full court press throughout the first quarter, which seemed to speed up the Wolverine ball-handlers. Even in half-court sets though, Michigan still struggled to hold onto possession of the ball.
Whether it was sophomore guard Deja Church, senior guard Nicole Munger or even junior wing Akienreh Johnson — who started in Amy Dilk’s absence — playing the point, the Wolverines were all over the place offensively.
“We were a little short-handed,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “And with the quick turnaround, it was difficult to prepare someone to take over that role at the point guard position. I thought you saw that today with the pressure we faced early on.”
As a result, Penn State gradually built up a lead. During a solid zone-defensive possession for Michigan, the Lady Lions’ Kamara McDaniel bailed them out with a 3-pointer from 25-feet out to beat the shot clock.
Penn State’s 12-point run finally ended in the closing seconds of the first quarter with Brown’s first three-pointer and a put-back layup from junior forward Kayla Robbins. Still, the Wolverines, having committed eight turnovers in the first quarter, trailed by four.
Michigan’s dismal offensive performance continued into the second frame. Senior center Hallie Thome had an especially disappointing performance in the first two quarters. She failed to make a single bucket, missing all 11 of her shots from the field. Thome also had two consecutive shots blocked down low by Penn State’s Lauren Ebo. And on the ensuing possession, the Lady Lions capitalized with an open three to push the lead to nine. Dilk’s absence clearly put a dent into the Wolverines’ rotation, as a trio of seldom-played freshman — Danielle Rauch, Ariel Young and Emily Kiser — entered the game in relief.
Still, the Wolverines managed to stay in the lead by one in the first half as a result of Brown’s prolific shooting performance and two late free throws from Church, overcoming 13 first-half turnovers.
“I couldn’t even believe we were up by one,” Barnes Arico said. “Just watching the game it was like, 'Holy cow, we’re up.' That’s the difference threes make instead of twos.”
Out of the break, Thome found freshman forward Naz Hillmon on the block for an easy layup. Shortly after, Penn State’s Taniya Page hit an off-balance floater and the back-and-forth nature of the second half was beginning to take shape.
Having still yet to miss a shot, Brown continued her dominance from deep, hitting her fifth of the game midway through the third quarter.
“Hailey came in at the beginning of the week and said ‘Coach, I’m just playing like myself right now, I’m in a little bit of a funk and need to get out of it,’ ” Barnes Arico said. “She spent a lot of time last year in the gym, getting up shots with (assistant) coach (Melanie Moore) and that’s what she did again this week. She played incredible. She really helped us to victory today.”
The Wolverines picked up the defensive intensity to close out the third quarter, limiting Page’s opportunities offensively. With 10 seconds left in the third, Thome’s stout defense in the post ensured that Ebo couldn’t finish off a put-back attempt to tie the game at 46.
Both offenses struggled to get good looks down the stretch. Hillmon, feeding off offensive rebounds, was Michigan’s lone dominate force. Thome uncharacteristically missed two consecutive layups and forced a bad pass to Hillmon, giving possession back to Penn State. A three from the corner and a tough floater from the Lady Lions’ Siyeh Frazier gave them a three-point lead with just under four minutes to go.
For her 18th and 19th points, Hillmon responded with a sweet spin move in the paint and a tough hook shot.
Tied at 62, Munger gave the Wolverines the advantage for good, pulling up from the foul line and hitting a jumper as the shot clock expired. Munger then hit two free throws to ensure the Wolverines secured their fourth consecutive win.
“That was one of the most exciting locker rooms I’ve been in after the game,” Barnes Arico said. “We had to have different people step up. Even if it’s only one play, those plays can be the difference in a close game. I think we saw that today. I think the kids have a little bit of confidence right now. We’re all about February. February is our month.”