When the temperature drops as low as it did Sunday, lots of things are slow to start. Gophers coach Marlene Stollings didn't expect her team to be among them.
The Gophers' sluggish defense allowed Michigan to race to a 35-20 lead after the first quarter, and the Wolverines withstood a late Gophers rally to win 93-86 at Williams Arena. After falling behind by 18 early in the third quarter, the Gophers (10-5, 2-2 Big Ten) staged a stouthearted comeback to pull within five. But Michigan (10-5, 2-2) made 16 of 22 free throws in the second half to hold on before a crowd announced at 3,243.
Shayne Mullaney shined off the bench, scoring 22 points on 10-of-13 shooting, and Carlie Wagner led the Gophers with 24. But Wolverines star Katelynn Flaherty scored 14 of her game-high 33 points in the first quarter as the Gophers were exploited both inside and outside. Michigan outrebounded the Gophers 46-34 and outscored them 40-32 in the paint, with much of their advantage gained in that decisive first quarter.
"You don't always win a game in the first half, but you can lose one," Stollings said. "We came out too flat defensively and let them get a lot of confidence and easy buckets.
"I've been pleased with our effort defensively the past three or four games. We were really making progress. But we had a setback today."
Wolverines coach Kim Barnes Arico instructed her team to take advantage of the Gophers' inexperience in the post and challenge their outside shooters. In the first quarter, Michigan dominated inside, outscoring the Gophers 16-6 in the paint and outrebounding them 14-5.
The Gophers were outmuscled around the basket and gave the Wolverines plenty of wide-open shots from outside. Flaherty made five of her first six as the Wolverines shot 55 percent in the first quarter, using an early 13-2 run to take a 17-6 lead. A string of nine unanswered points near the quarter's end pushed the lead to 17.
The Gophers' woes were compounded when leading scorer Rachel Banham committed two fouls in the first 10 minutes, keeping her on the bench for the entire second quarter. Her teammates began to whittle the deficit and trailed 53-42 at halftime, but Michigan scored the first seven points of the third quarter to take its largest lead.
Then Banham went to work. She scored 11 points in the final 6 minutes, 10 seconds of the quarter, which ended with a 14-2 Gophers run, and her driving layup to open the fourth quarter pulled the Gophers within 70-65. Banham scored 17 of her 21 points in the second half, but the rally stalled as the Wolverines made 13 of 18 free throws over the final 3:14.
"We always fight back," Wagner said. "It was just that first quarter that really hurt us. We've got to come out with more energy.''