The last time the Michigan women’s basketball team traveled to Normal, Ill. was Dec. 12, 1998. Then, Kim Barnes Arico was coaching at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and the Wolverines outscored the Redbirds, 86-43.
Barnes Arico now leads Michigan (7-2) as the Wolverines’ first-year coach and Michigan topped Illinois State, 56-45, in a back-and-forth game.
After a slow start, consisting of five turnovers in the first 2:53, Michigan was forced to adjust from its usual reliance on its starters. As a result, the Wolverines substituted senior forward Sam Arnold and freshman guard Madison Ristovski for seniors Nya Jordan and Kate Thompson — two players that have carried Michigan in its two most recent games.
For a team that typically relies on just five starters for the majority of scoring, and minutes, Michigan needed the help of some bench players to right the ship.
“We came out a little slow and then we were able to come through in that little stretch,” Thompson said. “We just needed some time to calm down. It was our first game on the road in a while. Once we got composed, that’s when we had started to have our success.”
After nearly six minutes of rest, the Wolverines’ leading scorer, Thompson, returned to the court and promptly made a 3-pointer to give Michigan its first lead of the game midway through the half.
By scoring 14 straight points to make the score 19-9, it appeared that the Wolverines’ signature dribble-drive style of play, and kick-out 3-pointers were going to be able to put the game away early, but Illinois State fought back.
In the final 9:36 of the first half, the Redbirds (4-3) outscored Michigan 12-4, as the Wolverines turned the ball over again and again. To be fair, Michigan was not alone, as each team only scored one basket each in the final 5:19 of the first stanza.
While the Wolverines’ lack of offensive production was due to 11 first-half turnovers — out of a total of 19 for the game, including a flurry of traveling violations — Illinois State’s offense stalled because it shot 30 percent from the field, in addition to just 15 first-half rebounds compared to Michigan’s 23.
“Our shots were just not falling,” said Thompson. “There were a lot of turnover for both teams, a lot of traveling, a lot of sloppy play.”
The Wolverines’ scoring lapses continued after the break, when the Redbirds opened with the first five points of the half to take their first lead since 6:58 into the contest. But just as she did in the first half, Thompson again hit a 3-pointer to wake the Wolverines up and give them a one-point lead.
From that point on, Michigan repeated the same pattern that led to its first-half success — 3-pointers and easy layups.
Led by Thompson’s 12 second-half points, and 18 total points, the Wolverines were able to do what they didn’t do well in the first half — protect their lead comfortably, rather than gradually let it slip down to a narrow margin.
After a layup by senior guard Jenny Ryan — who finished with 12 points and seven rebounds — with 2:07 left pushed the lead to nine, it was up to Michigan to make its free throws and secure the victory.
And that’s just what the Wolverines did — making four of six from the charity stripe to close the game out.
What ultimately doomed Illinois State was its lack of offensive production from its big-three of Jamie Russell, Janae Smith and Candace Sykes, who coming in had averaged slightly over 52 points per games. The trio was limited by Michigan's tight defense and managed only 16 total points, while being out-rebounded 42-24.
“I thought (our defense) was outstanding,” Barnes Arico said. “We were really going after it. I was really proud of it.”
Two players in particular that were key for the Wolverines rebounding and defense were Arnold and sophomore Nicole Elmblad, who combined for 15 rebounds, including a team-high of 10 by Elmblad. Arnold also added seven points, well above her average of two for the season after playing 18 minutes for the foul-troubled Sheffer, who still tallied 10 points and seven rebounds.
“Sam was unbelievable on the boards,” Thompson said. “She was finishing for us tonight and played great defense stopping (Smith).”