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Michigan to test its strength in Big Ten home opener

Allison Farrand/Daily
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By Shannon Lynch, Daily Sports Writer
Published January 8, 2014

In its first conference home game of 2014, the Michigan women’s basketball team will focus on strength, not size, to keep its three-game winning streak alive, as the Wolverines look to win their first two Big Ten games for the second consecutive season.

But that doesn’t mean size will still be on the Wolverines’ minds.

The Badgers pose a challenge in terms of size for Michigan, led by 6-foot senior guard Taylor Wurtz and 6-foot-3 redshirt junior forward Michala Johnson. Wurtz was just named Big Ten Player of the Week and tallied 27 points in Wisconsin’s overtime win over Illinois last week, while Johnson is averaging 16.1 points per game.

The Badgers have 10 players on their roster who stand at or above six-feet tall.

“We do feel that we are undersized and we’re smaller than most of our opponents,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico.

Luckily for the Wolverines, it’s not all about height. Freshman guard Siera Thompson, who stands at just 5-foot-7, is expected to apply pressure on Wisconsin (8-5 overall, 1-0 Big Ten), just like she did against Ohio State. More importantly, Thompson’s presence has provided a consistency in the Wolverines lineup, that was small and undecided to begin with.

“Her teammates have a tremendous amount of trust and confidence in her, and really believe she can lead our team,” Barnes Arico said. “She’s a freshman playing 37 minutes a game for us, going against probably the other team’s best defender, and handling that pressure night in and night out.”

Junior forward Shannon Smith, who also stands at just 5-foot-7, will hope to pose an offensive threat to the Badgers.

Smith has scored more than 20 points in three games this season and is averaging 15.1 points a game. She also became the first Wolverine to score more than 30 points in a game since the 2005-06 season, when she recorded 32 points against Detroit Mercy in November.

Michigan looks to ride its momentum from Sunday after it opened conference play with a 64-49 win over Ohio State in which Thompson scored 18 points, already her 12th double-digit scoring output of the young season. The team showed off some newfound free-throw skills, racking up a season-high 26 makes from the charity stripe, while shooting 92.9 percent from the line.

“We did a great job of getting to the free-throw line,” Barnes Arico said. “We had to handle some pressure and need to continue to get better at that, but we did what we needed to do to be successful.”

The Wolverines’ offensive success has stemmed from its offensive depth. Four different scorers are averaging double digits, including a pair of juniors in guard Nicole Elmblad and forward Cyesha Goree.

Despite losing the majority of its scorers from last season, the Wolverines are averaging 73.7 points per game, an increase of 13.6 points from last season. Additionally, Michigan leads the Big Ten with a 47.3-percent field-goal mark, good enough for a No. 12 ranking nationally.

Thursday’s contest will be the first of two between Michigan and the Badgers this season, with the Wolverines hoping to prevail like they did last year when they won, 54-53. Wisconsin shot 100 percent from the free throw line, so just like against Ohio State, it will be important to stay out of foul trouble throughout the game.

Wisconsin will pose a sizable threat at Crisler, but unless its defense can pressure the Wolverines into causing turnovers and missing shots from the line, Michigan should have the shooting power to overcome the Badgers and keep a perfect Big Ten record.