Michigan comfortably beats Rutgers at home, more Big Ten notes

COLLEGE PARK, MD - DECEMBER 28: Akienreh Johnson #14 of the Michigan Wolverines dribbles by Taylor Mikesell #11 of the Maryland Terrapins during a women's college basketball game at the Xfinity Center on December 28, 2019 in College Park, Maryland. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
COLLEGE PARK, MD - DECEMBER 28: Akienreh Johnson #14 of the Michigan Wolverines dribbles by Taylor Mikesell #11 of the Maryland Terrapins during a women's college basketball game at the Xfinity Center on December 28, 2019 in College Park, Maryland. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images) /

The maize and blue make a statement, Knights take another step backwards

Michigan earned a statement home victory on Sunday afternoon, comfortably defeating Rutgers, 71-57 — a score that doesn’t reflect how one-sided the affair truly was. The Wolverines built a 40-23 lead by halftime and led by as many as 22.

It was a stark turnaround for a Michigan team that had lost two of its last three, including a 28-point home thumping from Maryland just a weekend ago. Rutgers fell to 15-4 on the season and 5-3 in Big Ten play while Michigan improved to 13-6 overall and moved to .500 in conference play at 4-4.

Here are the most glaring takeaways from a blowout in Ann Arbor:

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Hiccup for Rutgers

Although Head Coach C. Vivian Stringer shouldn’t feel compelled to panic after two straight losses, Sunday’s performance will undoubtedly raise several concerns going forward.

For the second consecutive game, the Scarlet Knights not named Arella Guirantes — the Big Ten’s leading scorer — struggled to contribute when their team desperately needed them to. On Monday against Michigan State, Guirantes posted a season-high 28 points but no other player reached double figures. With the exception of a few late buckets by graduate student Khadaizha Sanders and sophomore Zipporah Broughton once the game was out of reach, Guirantes was the lone standout again on Sunday, scoring 16 on 7-for-15 shooting.

“[Broughton] is going to have to contribute in a bigger way,” Stringer said postgame. “We’ve gotta get a lot more from her… Mael [Gilles] should be rebounding more.

“We were not there. There’s two people that are scoring in double figures, it doesn’t make sense. You can’t win like that.”

Rutgers was dominated from the jump on Sunday — the Wolverines countered a 6-2 start from the visitors with a 13-1 run and were able to expand the lead to as much as 40-18 in the second quarter.

The slow start continues another troubling trend for the Knights, as they also trailed Michigan State by seven after the first quarter of Monday’s game. Rutgers cut the lead to 13 early in the second half with a 9-0 run spanning the second and third quarter but would never get closer.

“We don’t know why when somebody’s kicked us in the behind, then we decide we’re gonna play,” said Stringer. “We’re messing with our future, period.”

The Scarlet Knights also committed 15 first half turnovers, looking out of sorts and uncomfortable on the road. Although they unbelievably outshot the Wolverines through the first twenty minutes, they had just 17 field goal attempts in large part due to their carelessness with the basketball.

To make matters worse, Rutgers shot only 9-for-21 from the free throw line for the game, just a 43% clip. Senior center Jordyn Wallace went just 2-for-10 from the charity stripe and is shooting just 27% from there on the season.

Rutgers will have a chance to get back in the win column at home on Thursday evening against Illinois.

Johnson Steps Up

When Michigan received news last week that senior Kayla Robbins was lost for the remainder of the season with a torn ACL, it was particularly difficult to swallow for roommate and fellow senior Akienreh Johnson.

“They’ve been through the ups and downs of college basketball together,” said Head Coach Kim Barnes Arico after the game, adding that the two are best friends and that Johnson was “devastated” to learn about Robbins’  injury.

While Barnes Arico opted to switch sophomore guard Danielle Rauch into the starting lineup to replace Robbins —  a power forward — it was a different starting guard, Johnson, that thrived in Robbins’ absence. The Toledo, Ohio product scored a career-best 24 points on a stellar 9-for-13 from the field.

Johnson was able to accumulate her points in a variety of ways, whether it was from drives to the basket from the top of the key, offensive rebounds and putbacks or converting on three-pointers that the Scarlet Knights dared her to take. She also collected 11 rebounds and has now grabbed 30 total over her last three games.

“I thought [Johnson] played her heart out,” said Barnes Arico. “I thought she had energy to the ball… she was everywhere. She’s kind of letting the game come to her, she’s not pressing and she’s really playing with a lot of confidence right now.”

Sophomore center Naz Hillmon also had a terrific game, scoring 20 points on 9-for-16 shooting along with 12 rebounds.

Michigan must count on Hillmon’s improvement as well as Johnson’s high level of play moving forward, as Robbins was the team’s second leading scorer at 10.6 points per game before she sustained her ACL injury. If Sunday was indication, it seems the two are undoubtedly up to the task.

Other Big Ten Notes

Terps vs. Wildcats — No. 20 Maryland continued its stellar week on Sunday, knocking off No. 22 Northwestern at home, 70-61. It was Maryland’s second straight victory over a ranked opponent — having also defeated No. 17 Indiana on Monday — and fifth straight win overall.

While junior Lindsey Pulliam scored her typical 20 for the Wildcats, she produced them on just six makes out of 18 attempts from the field. Four players scored in double figures for the Terps, who have won five straight in conference play.

Iowa, Gustafson — Former Iowa All-Time Leading Scorer and Rebounder Megan Gustafson was honored at the Hawkeyes’ home game Sunday, having her #10 jersey officially retired by the program. Gustafson departed Iowa City as last season’s ESPN and AP National Player of the Year, having led the country in five different categories and capturing 13 Big Ten Player of the Week honors, a conference record.

The No. 19 Hawkeyes defeated Michigan State, 74-57, primarily because of freshman McKenna Warnock’s career-high 22 points. It was Iowa’s 32nd consecutive home victory.

RPI  10 of the conference’s 14 teams remain in the top 70 of the NCAA RPI, with the Hawkeyes leading the pack at No. 5.

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