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Lev Facher: Michigan State's rivalry dominance a thing of the past

James Coller/Daily
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By Lev Facher, Daily Sports Writer
Published March 8, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS — On Jan. 12, the Michigan women’s basketball team made a statement, echoing one it had been hinting at throughout the first weeks of the season. In front of the biggest crowd, under the brightest lights and against the fiercest of opponents they would see all year, the Wolverines were tied late in the second half against the team that controls women’s basketball in the state of Michigan.

That time, the moral victory was enough. While most in Crisler Center might have expected the Wolverines to contend, nobody truly expected a win. It just wasn’t time yet. So when victory slipped away and the crowd slowly filed toward the exits, nothing was amiss.

Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico had been dealt a hand that really only had six cards. And of those six, junior forward Nicole Elmblad was the only one who had ever played in a maize and blue uniform for more than a few minutes here and there. Barnes Arico’s two leading scorers this season had never played for her prior to November, and that’s just the backcourt.

Nobody had the faintest idea where production at the post positions would come from, much less that junior Cyesha Goree would come from absolutely nowhere to become of the league’s best rebounders, or that Elmblad would become perhaps the league’s scrappiest player, or that senior Val Driscoll would find a jump shot and become a scoring presence in her own right.

That time, nobody expected Michigan to break the status quo.

This time, it was different. This time, Michigan State had no business leaving the court with a win. This time, the Wolverines took the notion that the Spartans’ in-state dominance was a birthright and not a privilege, and they made it disappear entirely.

As long as Barnes Arico is at Michigan, it won’t come back.

The Wolverines have struggled to finish games all year long, but never before have they shown the ability to take complete control of a game against a quality opponent like they did in the first half Friday. Barnes Arico’s six-piece engine was firing on all cylinders, finally.

Michigan has proved time and time again that it can beat mediocre teams, and that it can contend with good ones — a two-point loss to No. 15 LSU and a road win at No. 22 Purdue come to mind. But never before have the Wolverines displayed an ability to entirely neutralize a quality opponent.

In their second crack at Michigan State, they broke the barrier. Every spectator, usher, player and coach in the sparsely populated Bankers Life Fieldhouse could plainly see it, beginning with a Thompson 3-pointer that marked the 31st straight game in which she’s converted from beyond the arc.

It wasn’t enough, apparently, that Michigan has a freshman who has made a 3-pointer in every single game of her college career. Sophomore guard Madison Ristovski’s decision to go on a 3-point rampage in the second half just rubbed salt into the wound, reestablishing the Wolverines’ superiority well after they had opened up a 14-point lead midway through the first half.

The Wolverines took it to the Spartans less than 24 hours after their previous game, while Michigan State had been resting since the weekend. Michigan took it to them with six players, while the Spartans used eight. The Wolverines did it with less experience, less raw talent, less polish and infinitely more heart.

So Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant’s assertion that “they were really taking it to us out of the gate” is perfectly accurate, if you ignore the implication that Michigan wasn’t also taking it to her team later in the first half, and midway through the second half and at most points in the game, save for two late-half collapses that allowed the Wolverines to snatch defeat from the jaws of a very well deserved victory.

So it doesn’t matter that an errant pass from Ristovski with less than a minute left gifted the Spartans two points in transition, giving them the 61-58 lead they would cling to dearly and ride into the tournament’s third round. It doesn’t matter that Thompson barely got a last-gasp shot off as the clock reached zero, or that it fell well short. It doesn’t even matter that Elmblad picked up her fifth foul going after a loose ball with five minutes remaining, forcing Barnes Arico to stick with the five other players she trusted, because they were the only other players she was ever able to use.

It doesn’t matter, even, that the Spartans displayed far more poise and experience than Michigan. Experience and poise can’t be coached. Barnes Arico’s team will carry forward the skill, cohesiveness and grit that it displayed this season, and the poise and experience will come.

Next time around, the Wolverines will win the games they’re supposed to, and probably some that they’re not. Next time, Ristovski will probably hold onto the ball, and Thompson will be able to create a shot for herself, and Elmblad will be center stage directing traffic instead of playing cheerleader from the bench when the game is on the line.

Next time, the Spartans won’t be so lucky.

Facher can be reached at lfacher@umich.edu and on Twitter @levfacher.


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