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Alexa Dettelbach: Michigan is on a mission

James Coller/Daily
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By Alexa Dettelbach, Daily Sports Editor
Published March 21, 2014

Kim Barnes Arico stood on the sideline with her hands on her hips.

Her stare didn’t break as the second-year coach watched her team warm up after halftime, in front of a sparse Crisler Center crowd. The Michigan women’s basketball team was up 38-16 over Stony Brook (13-3 America East, 24-9 overall) in the first round of the WNIT, but no one on the Wolverine sideline was smiling.

Michigan wasn’t just playing to win — it was playing to prove a point.

This wasn’t what the Wolverines wanted, though none of them would say that. They didn’t have to. It was in their faces, their demeanor and their play.

Michigan (8-8 Big Ten, 19-13) wasn’t supposed to be playing today, and it showed from the opening tip. Or at least right after the tip since the Seawolves won the tip-off and scored a triple on their first possession. But following that, the Wolverines jumped out to a commanding lead they never relinquished, ultimately winning, 86-48.

“We have to look at it like we have the opportunity to win a championship,” Barnes Arico said. “Yes, we wanted to be in the NCAA and we are disappointed, obviously, that we’re not in the NCAA Tournament.”

In the first half, there were times when Michigan was sloppy and careless with the ball, ending the half with 10 turnovers. When Stony Brook cut the lead to eight with 3:01 remaining in the first, Barnes Arico called a timeout and addressed her team. She reminded everyone why they were there.

So coming out of the timeout, junior forward Nicole Elmblad hit back-to-back layups followed by a 3-pointer from sophomore guard Madison Ristovski to stretch the lead to 15, and reminding the crowd what they were watching: a team on a mission.

* * *

When the season began, most fans weren’t expecting more than a WNIT bid for Michigan, if that. But as it got rolling during the non-conference slate, with just a two-point loss to then-No. 15 LSU in November and a strong second half against then-No. 4 Notre Dame in December, optimism arose.

And by the time Big Ten play started in January with the Wolverines notching quality wins over Ohio State and No. 22 Purdue on the road, expectations began to shift.

But it was in the Big Ten Tournament two weeks ago when the feeling of expectation and subsequent disappointment was hammered home.

The Wolverines had a chance to beat No. 19 Michigan State, a team that went onto earn a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament but also a team Michigan has lost to 15 out of the last 17 times. And despite winning for 95 percent of the game, the Wolverines came up just short.

“We definitely do have a chip, and I just think since that day no one’s really forgotten about it,” Ristovski said. “And to this day we still talk about what we could’ve done differently.”

Maybe winning that game wouldn’t have done anything for their hopes of an at-large bid into the big dance. Truth be told, it would’ve taken at least a third win in Indianapolis to earn the Wolverines a bid, but even so, a win over the Spartans would’ve made this WNIT game against Stony Brook feel better.

“I’m still not over it, and I don’t think our players are over it either,” Barnes Arico said.

Then Michigan would know it did everything it could down the stretch to set itself up for the postseason, regardless of which tournament it participated in.

But what could’ve been frustration, Barnes Arico turned into drive — forcing her squad to make the best of a disappointing situation. And it showed.

Which is why, following warm-ups in the second half, Barnes Arico sat down on the bench and watched as her team carried a chip on its shoulder and translate it into a strong second half. All of which she created.

Everyone in the Wolverines’ starting lineup came out shooting on all cylinders. The offense was facilitated by junior guard Shannon Smith’s career-high 13 assists, while the scoring was spearheaded by back-to-back triples from Ristovski and four players scoring in double digits, including freshman guard Siera Thompson’s game-high 17. Michigan led by as many as 38 in the second half.

But no lead was big enough for a team on a mission.

***

The Wolverines could’ve joked around and smiled at halftime with a 12-point lead. They could’ve cut corners during warm ups and been frustrated by a WNIT bid. They could’ve taken the game lightly and stopped taking 3-point shots with a commanding 30-point lead. But they didn’t.

This Michigan team has shown, even in a game that has little implications on the program, that it can be the hardest-working team in America, in every facet of the game.

Now it’s more than that. Now, it’s a team that has something to prove too.

And no one will be happy until that point is proven.

Dettelbach can be reached at adettel@umich.edu or on Twitter: @asdettel