This was the moment. The stage was set. The audience was present. The attention that this team so clearly deserved was finally here. All the arrangements for its dream wedding, in what has been a dream season thus far, were set.
The wedding customs for the bride-to-be, No. 23 Michigan, were in place as well.
Something old, something new, something borrowed, and of course, something blue.
The gifts for its hard work and preparation were staring them right in the face: 11-straight victories, a 5-0 conference record, the opportunity to be the last undefeated team in the Big Ten. Everything was out on the table for the taking.
For a team that has had six players suffer ACL injuries since the summer and has relied on an eight-player rotation, Monday represented a night to take on the powerhouse team of the Big Ten in No. 8 Penn State. It was a chance to show the nation and the Big Ten that the Wolverines were not a young newlywed couple looking for attention. They were here to make a long lasting impression.
“This senior class is coming off of three years of things that hadn’t been done in a long time,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico at Michigan media day in October. “We owe it to them to make it the best year we can make it.”
And all season long the Wolverines have done that. The five-member senior class of guard Jenny Ryan and forwards Rachel Sheffer, Kate Thompson, Nya Jordan and Sam Arnold have carried the scoring burden due to the team’s lack of depth. The quintet has accounted for 80 percent of the team’s scoring, with the trio of Thompson, Sheffer and Ryan averaging 15.8, 12.4 and 11.4 points per game, respectively.
Scoring has not been the only area that the senior class has kept steady for Michigan, as the group has averaged over 23 rebounds per game, including 6.1 for Jordan and 5.8 for Sheffer.
But the most outstanding statistic for any senior and any player on the team has been Thompson’s shooting from beyond the arc. Through 17 games, she has averaged 3.88 triples per game and is on the path to break the school record for 3-pointers in a season. Coming off a game in which she made a school-record seven 3-pointers, she would be as important as ever in Michigan’s game against Penn State.
For a team coming off its first NCAA Tournament in 11 years, winning is not something routinely associated with the Wolverines. It is associated with Barnes Arico.
Fresh off of a Sweet Sixteen appearance with St. John's last season, and three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, Barnes Arico came to Michigan with an idea in mind – building a championship program.
Without a doubt, Barnes Arico has done just that, leading the Wolverines to their best start in program history while tying the program’s mark for consecutive games won.
With her 15-2 start, Barnes Arico is already tied for the second-most wins by a first-year head coach in Michigan history and in the process, became the first Michigan coach to win her first two conference games, let alone her first four.
Under her up-tempo coaching style, the Wolverines were thriving. They were finding the open person on the offensive end and shooting the nation’s 10th-best percentage from the field. Despite their lack of height and depth, they were still managing to outrebound opponents by six rebounds a game.
Barnes Arico was finding ways for her team to succeed.
Despite its hot start, Michigan still wasn’t drawing a large crowd appropriate for a team with 15-2 record, but with a matchup of Top-25 teams, the Wolverines finally got their wish on Monday night.
“You’re always going to have those loyal fans, but if you start winning, you’ll get more and more people,” Barnes Arico said. “It always makes a big difference to have that crowd.”
Even with the black curtains in the upper sections in use to limit the seating capacity, a three-fourths full Maize Rage was loud and proud to cheer on its home team in a game widely promoted by the Athletic Department.
With an autograph session with star football players at five o’clock, free pizza for all students in attendance and the event being designated as a five-point activity on the H.A.I.L application, the 2,842 people on hand made up the biggest home attendance of the season.
And as the game progressed with ups and downs, the crowd got loud. When Thompson made a 3-pointer in the opening minutes, the crowd went wild. When a call didn’t go their way, the fans let the referees know their opinion. For the first time this season, a team other than the men’s basketball team had a lively Crisler Center crowd on its feet.
It seemed that the Wolverines had it all locked down. The families were present. The rings were ready to be exchanged.
It seemed that if Michigan had anything for certain, it would be something blue. But just as quickly as love can come, it can easily slip away too.
And on Monday night, the team in blue postponed Michigan’s wedding. With fans in white supporting Penn State and upstaging the bride-to-be, Michigan shot a season-low 28 percent from the field. Meanwhile, the Lady Lions’ two preseason Big Ten first-team players, Alex Bentley and Maggie Lucas, combined for 35 points while toying with the Wolverines' hearts from start to finish in their 59-49 victory.
But not all is lost for Michigan; a team that was just a few made jumpers from going on its honeymoon. The season is still young and as in any break-up, you have to move on to bigger and better things.
For the Wolverines, the bigger and better things start with Indiana on Thursday.