Michigan goes into Big Ten Tournament with momentum at its back

Monday, February 26, 2018 - 2:28pm

Sophomore guard Akienreh Johnson is trending upward in Hailey Brown's absence.

Sophomore guard Akienreh Johnson is trending upward in Hailey Brown's absence. Buy this photo
Max Kuang/Daily

Here’s a statement that seemed unfathomable a week ago: the Michigan women’s basketball team has momentum going into the Big Ten Tournament.

The Wolverines (10-6 Big Ten, 21-8 overall) were reeling then. Having lost four of five, their NCAA Tournament prospects were on the fritz with one game to go in the regular season. But winning solves everything, especially upset wins, especially when the stakes are high and especially when anything else would have made a run in Indianapolis imperative.

After beating then-No. 13 Maryland, Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico swaggered into the interview room, taking questions at the podium instead of sitting with reporters as per usual (I can lean,” she joked) and speaking with an audible energy. The stress had been lifted from the Wolverines’ backs like they had just gotten a deep tissue massage. With a week between then and its first Big Ten Tournament game, Michigan has enough time to do that if it wants.

“We feel like, for the first time all year, we have an opportunity to be a rested team,” Barnes Arico said Monday. “We were one of the teams — I think probably the only team — that had 15 straight games — Big Ten games — before we got our bye, so in the last week we’ve had an opportunity to get a couple days off and to prepare.”

When they tip off on Thursday, Michigan will have played one game in the 15 days leading up to the Big Ten Tournament, its biggest break of the season. Its opponent — either Penn State or Illinois — will be playing on a back-to-back. The Wolverines blew out both in the regular season as well, the Nittany Lions by 20 and the Illini by 44.

Heck, Michigan has beaten all of the top three seeds in this week’s affair — Ohio State, Maryland and Nebraska — two of them on the road.

Things have changed since those two road wins though. Freshman forward Hailey Brown went down for the year with a lower leg injury, but sophomore Akienreh Johnson has stepped up in her place. Johnson has scored more points in the two games since Brown’s injury, 38, than the 36 she scored in 22 games prior. Moreover, she’s done so on 16-of-24 shooting from the field, a staggeringly efficient mark for anyone — let alone someone who was lucky to get in outside of garbage time before the last two games.

“We always talk about, ‘Okay, that’s an opportunity for someone to step in and really take advantage of that opportunity,’ ” Barnes Arico said. “You know, AK and I had spoken about that, probably over the last few weeks, because she was working hard but wasn’t seeing any results. … So, we just said, keep grinding, keep working, keep putting in the extra time. And when the opportunity comes, be ready to take advantage of it. And when Hailey got injured, AK has gone in and has just been outstanding for us.”

Though it’s certainly conceivable Johnson moves into the starting lineup ahead of Thursday, freshman guard Deja Church has held that spot thus far. Though Church isn’t much of a scorer, she’s earned a reputation as a hard-nosed defender. Her presence also allows senior guard Katelynn Flaherty a reprieve from running the offense once in a while.

“She’s a spark-plug for us,” Barnes Arico said. “She’s getting better and better each and every single day. She embraces the opportunity to learn, she wants to be the best that there is. And she just gives us a spark and a certain energy level.”

Of course, Flaherty is the player who will draw the most attention and with good reason. She’s averaging 23.5 points on 41.5-percent shooting from outside despite being face-guarded for most of conference play. There’s no reason to expect that will stop now — despite diminishing returns, playing triangle-and-two or box-and-one coverage against Flaherty has helped limit her efficiency and force turnovers.

But Flaherty is the type of player against whom defenses can never let up. Even in the midst of a six-turnover, 4-of-14 shooting performance against the Terrapins, she found enough space to hit a crucial 3-pointer in the final minutes.

Juniors Nicole Munger and Hallie Thome will provide scoring from the guard and center spots as well, but like Flaherty, that’s no secret.

Michigan is what it is — the Wolverines know that and so does any team they’ll face. Any identity crisis brought on by Brown’s injury solved itself in Johnson stepping up and Church taking a bigger role. The biggest difference between now and last week is confidence, and Michigan’s has grown exponentially.

“We finally got our bye, we got an opportunity to take a great day off, we got an opportunity to prepare for Maryland, one of the best teams in the country, and we were successful,” Barnes Arico said. “So I think that gave our team the confidence to know, ‘Hey, we hit a little skid there, we hit a little bump, but those games that we did lose were one-possession games. … So let’s regroup, let’s get rested, let’s prepare for Maryland and see what happens.’ And that was a great basketball game and we came out on top and I think it gave our kids a lot of confidence back.”

At their best, the Wolverines are capable of playing with anybody in the Big Ten. That doesn't mean they should be considered favorites — Ohio State and Maryland are a step above the rest of a fairly deep conference — but a run in Indianapolis is far from unlikely.