By Alexa Dettelbach, Daily Sports Editor
Published January 18, 2014
On the heels of its biggest win of the season, the Michigan women’s basketball team came out looking flat Saturday against Illinois.
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The Wolverines struggled to generate offense and hold onto the ball in the first five minutes, in which they registered just one field goal. Trailing 11-4 in front of its home crowd, Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico called a timeout and, following the break, checked in sophomore guard Madison Ristovski.
And that’s when the game changed.
Ristovski drained a 3-pointer from the top of the arc, followed by two assists to freshman point guard Siera Thompson that led to back-to-back triples and an assist to junior forward Nicole Elmblad on a layup.
In a blink of an eye, the Wolverines’ seven-point deficit turned into a seven-point lead.
Ristovski has found a niche as the team’s top bench player, and Saturday’s game was no exception. Michigan (4-1 Big Ten, 13-5 overall) rode Ristovski’s hot hand to a 69-60 win over Illinois (1-4, 8-10) at the Crisler Center.
After entering the game, Ristovski stayed in for all but two minutes of the first half and was needed once again when the Wolverines allowed the Fighting Illini to close the gap.
“She’s great,” said junior-transfer guard Shannon Smith. “I love her to death. She’s always working hard (and) I see her game improving. She’s getting more confidence, and basketball is all about confidence.”
Ristovski’s first-half performance earned her a spot in the starting lineup after the break, and she did what she does best, grabbing two loose balls and facilitating the offense in transition.
Barnes Arico stuck with her guard early in the second half, but once she opted to remove Ristovski from the game for a breather, the Fighting Illini clawed back. Illinois never had an answer for the energy she brought, and Ristovski ultimately finished the game with 13 points, eight rebounds and five assists, playing all but two minutes in the second half.
Despite her strong all-around game, Ristovski also struggled with turnovers, committing seven.
“Madison has grown tremendously, and she has been incredible for us,” Barnes Arico said. “I think tonight, I got on her a little bit after the game because she had seven turnovers. The thing about her turnovers is that it wasn’t that Illinois forced them. I just think Madison saw things and they were baiting her almost (because) she sees things that other people don’t.
“But I said after the game, ‘You’re lucky every time you’d (turn the ball over) you’d come down and make a three, so I can’t give you too much grief.’ “
Though her stats don’t reflect how much the guard was able to contribute, her teammates’ numbers are evidence of her impact.
In the first half especially, Ristovski’s ability to play along the baseline in addition to shooting from the wings left Thompson wide open, allowing the freshman to explode for 19 points and make 5-of-8 from three. Ristovski’s play in the second half helped pave the way for Smith, who, after a slow first half, hit several layups in a row and ended the game with 17 points and four rebounds.
Defensively in particular, when Michigan ran a 2-3 zone, Ristovski played more in the key and the baseline, showcasing her ability to guard bigger players. Ristovski thrived down low against the Fighting Illini, grabbing eight rebounds.
“I just think she’s so much more consistent and confident,” Barnes Arico said. “As a freshman, it was easy for her to lose her confidence, and with a senior laden-team, she didn’t get those minutes. Her confidence has grown leaps and bounds and she understands the game. ... She’s getting better and better every day.”
Before facing Illinois, Ristovski was coming off one of her best games as a Wolverine, posting 17 points on 5-of-9 shooting, including 3-of-5 from beyond the arc against Purdue on Wednesday. Coming into the season, Ristovski hoped to start and develop a larger offensive role. And while the development of Thompson threw a curveball in Ristovski’s aspirations to start, the second-year guard has embraced her role as the team’s sixth man and is still playing important minutes.
“Madison is a really good passer and a really good scorer,” Thompson said. “She contributes to this team a lot, and she’s the reason why we’re successful. She does things that help us and get us those extra points.”