Brad Whipple: The inevitable loss

Tuesday, December 8, 2015 - 7:41pm

Madison Ristovski is one of the older players responsible for leading Michigan's young roster.

Madison Ristovski is one of the older players responsible for leading Michigan's young roster. Buy this photo
Rita Morris/Daily

 

It seemed easy for the Michigan women’s basketball team to roll to a 7-0 start to the season — maybe too easy.

Before Sunday’s loss to Princeton, the Wolverines had averaged 87.9 points per game, making them the third-best scoring offense in the country. They surpassed 100 points against South Carolina Upstate, wiped the Crisler Center floor with Xavier and avenged last season’s 21-point loss to Pittsburgh.

Even without the presence of the last year’s veteran senior class, Michigan still reversed the storyline against Pittsburgh by churning out a 37-point win this time around. Whether from observation or on paper, the Wolverines haven’t struggled during nonconference play.

With such a young team, though, you knew a loss was coming.

It shouldn’t have been too surprising that Michigan lost to Princeton on Sunday. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Wolverines couldn’t compete at that level, but they were still rough around the edges through those first seven games. Michigan knew it couldn’t get too comfortable either, as players continued to emphasize that each game is different from the next and that early-season mistakes won’t suffice during Big Ten play.

Passing and shooting mistakes weren’t difference-makers against Detroit or Hartford, but were exactly what drew the line between a win and a loss against Princeton. The Tigers were on the verge of breaking into the top 25 and still had the taste of Wolverine blood from last season, when Princeton embarrassed Michigan to the tune of a 30-point victory in Ann Arbor.

This time around, being in New Jersey couldn’t have made it any easier for the Wolverines. But then again, they took a 30-point loss to Princeton and turned it into a 17-point loss — an improvement.

More importantly, Michigan has a group of freshmen that aren’t playing like freshmen. In fact, they’ve accounted for over a third of Michigan’s points so far this season. Anyone can dish the ball to center Hallie Thome; guards Nicole Munger and Boogie Brozoski have proved to be lights out beyond the 3-point line; and forward Sam Trammel has shown great promise on the defensive end. 

“They’re winners,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “They’re competitive, they’re a top-rated class in the country. … But they are inexperienced. They’re gonna have some really great moments for us, and I’m sure they’re gonna have some challenging moments as well.”

Sunday, the first of many challenging moments to come hit Michigan, and hit it hard enough to take the freshman class out of the game entirely. Thome scored just three points and seemed to always position herself on the end line for a pass, making it even more difficult to get a good look at the basket during a double team. Munger, Brozoski and Trammel combined for six turnovers and just four points.

For a freshman class that had gone all of high school doing nothing but winning — combining for a 107-9 record in its senior year — Sunday’s loss must have been a reality check. Last week, Barnes Arico said they didn’t know how to lose.

But maybe some experience in that department wouldn’t hurt.

In fact, Sunday’s loss was exactly the dose of medicine Michigan needed to remedy its winner’s high. It needed to experience defeat, because it hadn’t since April 1 against UCLA in the WNIT Semifinals last season. Coincidentally, the Bruins are the very same team the Wolverines will face Sunday on the Crisler hardwood.

Whether Michigan recognizes it or not, Sunday’s loss may be the motivating factor to not make the same mistakes again — or at least make them on a less consistent basis.

For instance, if sophomore guard Katelynn Flaherty has a 33-point night, that should almost guarantee a win. It shouldn’t mean 24.1 percent team shooting and 22 turnovers, factors that made a meaningful performance by Flaherty in her home state irrelevant.

That can’t happen again if the Wolverines hope to dance in the NCAA Tournament.

This could very well be the year that Michigan makes it to that stage of the postseason, and losing to Princeton may have been the best way to remind the Wolverines that the road to the Round of 64 won’t be laden with teams like Oral Roberts and South Carolina Upstate.

Instead, Michigan’s going to face six top-25 teams: No. 5 Maryland, No. 10 Ohio State, No. 12 Northwestern, No. 20 UCLA, No. 23 Iowa and No. 25 Michigan State.

It’d be better for the Wolverines to purge themselves of mistakes now rather than later. Losing games in December is part of the learning curve, and a poor performance now won’t mean as much as it would in February.

A loss to Princeton this early in the season does more good than harm for Michigan, and the Wolverines should be thankful that they can still afford that luxury.

Whipple can be reached at bmwhip@umich.edu and on Twitter @brad_whipple.