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Wolverines have no time for recovery as Golden Gophers loom

By Shannon Lynch, Daily Sports Writer
Published January 30, 2014

For the Michigan women’s basketball team, bouncing back has never been more important. After suffering a demoralizing 85-54 loss to No. 24 Nebraska on Wednesday night, the Wolverines’ ability to overcome adversity will be tested this weekend.

Michigan has yet to lose back-to-back games this season, but that record will be on the line come Saturday as it plays host to Minnesota (2-6 Big Ten, 13-9 overall), which has lost five of its last six away games.

The Golden Gophers have fallen to last place in the Big Ten conference, while Michigan (5-3, 14-7) sits more comfortably in a tie with Iowa and Purdue for third place. Though Minnesota doesn’t seem like a major threat on paper, the Wolverines are heading into their third conference game in just a week, and the schedule and travel have been taxing.

“I think this is really going to test our toughness,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “That’s going to be a sign for our team as to where we are and how resilient we are.”

The Golden Gophers lead the all-time series, 31-25, but Michigan has won three of the last six. Last season’s matchup holds many similarities to Saturday’s game — the teams met at the end of January, and Michigan had yet to lose back-to-back games in that season. Minnesota snapped that record in 2013 with a home victory over the Wolverines, 82-67.

The Golden Gophers are led on offense by guard Rachel Banham, who averages 21 points. She was named to the Big Ten Player of the Week Honor Roll earlier this month after scoring 32 points at Iowa and then 28 days later in a victory over Northwestern.

“She runs the point, so she can do multiple things — shoot the three, take you off the bounce, post you up, and they have two inside kids that are really dominant,” Barnes Arico said. “I think one of them is leading the league in rebounding, so it will be an interesting matchup for (junior forward) Cyesha Goree inside to see, and (senior forward) Val Driscoll, how we handle their inside presence.”

Another player who will pose a threat to the Wolverines on both ends of the court is Amanda Zahui. The 6-foot-5 Swedish center is averaging 14.2 points and 10.5 rebounds, and her height will give the Golden Gophers a major advantage in the paint. The Wolverines will need to be aggressive and disciplined to keep the ball out of her hands in critical situations.

Since Minnesota holds the overall height advantage — not a single player stands shorter than 5-foot-9 — Barnes Arico will likely start her larger lineup of Driscoll, Goree and junior forward Nicole Elmblad. All three have been valuable in terms of setting up blocks and knocking down shots consistently for the Wolverines this season. But for Michigan to have success against Minnesota, Goree will have to cut down on her fouls in order for her team to maintain a big line on the court.

Freshman Siera Thompson recently set the record for most 3-pointers from a freshman in Michigan history with 50, but junior guard Shannon Smith still leads the team in scoring, averaging 14.4 points. Smith has struggled as of late to break through heightened defensive pressure, so she and Thompson will need to rely on their longer shots to help open up the field on offense.

The Wolverines have consistently shown resilience after losses this season, and every defeat has resulted in quick improvements and increased motivation inside the Michigan locker room. If the Wolverines can sink jumpers, nab rebounds and manage the pressure inside the paint — all things they failed to do against Nebraska — the team will likely be able to stifle Minnesota’s defense and be in good position to pull out a win.