By Daniel Feldman, Daily Sports Writer
Published November 27, 2012
After winning the first three games of its current five-game home stand, the Michigan women’s basketball team will take on No. 4 Duke (4-0) in a ACC/Big Ten Challenge matchup on Wednesday night.
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For Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico, the Blue Devils are a familiar foe, as Barnes Arico’s former team, St. John’s, was eliminated in last year’s NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 by Duke.
“At St. John’s, we had a team that handled pressure extremely well and we played Duke and did not handle pressure extremely well,” Barnes Arico said. “So I know going in that will be a significant challenge for us.”
The Blue Devils return four starters from a 27-6 team that advanced to the Elite Eight last season, including pre-season All-ACC team selections in junior Chelsea Gray and sophomore Elizabeth Williams — who also tied with Maryland’s Alyssa Thomas for the ACC Preseason Coaches’ Player of the Year award.
As a team, Duke entered the season ranked third. It also received nine of 12 first-place Preseason Coaches’ ACC Poll votes to enter the season as tops in the conference.
In their first four games, the Blue Devils have been completely dominant, almost doubling their opponents’ average point total at an 89 to 45 rate. To go along with that, they are shooting 51.6 percent from the field, while their opponents are being held to a 29.2 percentage.
Duke will surely have an advantage over the Wolverines in rebounding. Michigan (5-1) has outrebounded its opposition in its first six games 206 to 198, though that’s a small margin. In a stark comparison, the Blue Devils have out-rebounded their opponents by a total of 68 and are averaging 46.2 boards a game compared to 30 for their opponents.
The Wolverines have only averaged 34.3 per game.
“Their post play is exceptional,” Barnes Arico said. “Elizabeth Williams is one of the best in the country. We are going to have a tough time matching up with their size, their strength and their athleticism.”
With senior Rachel Sheffer as the only true forward in the starting lineup, sophomore guard Nicole Elmblad will be key to Michigan’s success. Elmblad is coming off a nine-rebound game against Boston University, and she will likely have to emulate her performance for the game to stay competitive.
While the Wolverines’ senior core of Sheffer, guards Kate Thompson and Jenny Ryan have averaged 44.1 out of 63.8 points, Duke has the flexibility of relying on several players for scoring.
The Blue Devils have six players that average at least nine points a game, led by Gray, who averages 15.8 a game to go along with 5.5 rebounds and 7.5 assists. She’s joined by fellow junior Haley Peters, who is averaging a slightly smaller amount of 15.3 points, but a larger average of seven rebounds per game.
The duo, with junior Tricia Liston, combined for 42 points, 19 rebounds, 13 assists, and six steals in its last game against Xavier.
Liston for the season has averaged 14.3 points and nine rebounds per game — a figure slightly better than Sheffer, who has averages seven rebounds.
Duke’s fourth member of its quad of double-digit scorers is Williams, who has averaged 14.5 points and six rebounds off the bench. In comparison, Michigan’s greatest scorer off the bench has been freshman guard Madison Ristovski, who is averaging 3.8 points.
Against Xavier, Williams scored 16 points, making the third straight game she has scored in double-figures. Williams also posted three blocks, six rebounds, one assist and one steal in 26 minutes of action.
Another threat that the Wolverines will have to deal with is freshman Alexis Jones, who is coming off scoring a career-high 14 points against Xavier. She also added five assists, four rebounds and two steals to help fill the stat sheet.
“It’s going to be a really difficult matchup for us,” Barnes Arico said. “Hopefully we can take care of the ball and have our home-court advantage.”