Max Cohen: Youth leads to success for women's basketball

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By Max Cohen, Daily Sports Editor
Published January 20, 2014

Illinois coach Matt Bollant crouched low on his sideline, watching the Michigan women’s basketball team’s offense go to work. He focused on every movement on the floor, mentally willing a needed defensive stop with the Fighting Illini trailing late in Saturday’s game.

Then he lowered his gaze. His face turned motionless, his eyes blank.

Michigan sophomore guard Madison Ristovski had just hit a 3-pointer to give the Wolverines a 12-point lead, and Bollant watched on. He stared for a matter of moments then turned around, muttered something to his assistants and beckoned for another player to come off the bench.

Michigan’s offense has had a tendency to elicit this sort of reaction from opposing coaches this season. If there is a surefire way to stop these Wolverines, Big Ten coaches are still searching for it.

That’s because Michigan’s offense works like a tag-team schoolyard fight. You can stop one player, but then you have to stop another who will step in and produce.

Going into the season, the Wolverines’ youth made the team irrelevant, a non-factor in a Big Ten conference fraught with experienced stars. Their returning leading scorer, Elmblad, averaged just over four points per game.

Now, more than halfway through the regular season, Michigan’s biggest weakness has turned into one of its biggest strengths.

Maybe the solution is to hold junior guard Shannon Smith and junior forward Cyesha Goree — two of the team’s top four scorers — without a field goal in the first half. Nice try, but even as Illinois managed to pull off the feat, it still trailed by four entering the half.

If an opponent can stop Smith from scoring for a half, Michigan doesn’t have to worry. Freshman guard Siera Thompson will deliver the knockout blows instead, delivering four jabs to the abdomen in the form of 3-pointers as she did in the first half against the Fighting Illini. Prevent Goree from getting to the basket and junior guard Nicole Elmblad will run laps around the defense until she finds an open jumper from the elbow.

And defenses can’t forget about Ristovski, who can create for teammates and hit a shot from anywhere on the court, or senior forward Val Driscoll, who will scrap for every offensive rebound and then lay it in for a Michigan basket. Add in freshman guard Paige Rakers — who has attempted the second-most 3-pointers on the team — and the Wolverines have seven players that can give opposing coaches headaches.

Meanwhile, Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico had whatever the opposite of a headache is after her team finished off Illinois. She gushed about her team’s performance, thrilled with her team’s start to conference play.

“They have great chemistry, they are so unselfish, they buy into working hard and I think they’re so naïve,” Barnes Arico said. “They just go out and play.”

Barnes Arico spoke with an ear-to-ear smile, making it seem like calling someone naïve would be the highest of all compliments. For this team, it is.

“It isn’t like, ‘Oh, I’m playing Michigan State,’ or ‘Oh, I’m playing Illinois,’ ” Barnes Arico said. “They play the same way all the time, and they believe every time they go out on the court they’re going to have an opportunity to win.”

The fact that these players haven’t scored more than a smattering of points at the collegiate level helps Michigan on each possession. It doesn’t matter to the Wolverines who scores, as long as the possession ends with the ball funneling its way down the basket.

This complete lack of selfishness rears its head each game as Michigan lasers the ball around the perimeter looking for the best shot. The Wolverines weave the ball inside and outside, until the optimal look arises.

The formula isn’t foolproof, but nobody expected it to be. A slow start against Michigan State turned out to be costly, but the versatile offense appeared late in the first half, giving Michigan a fighting chance in its lone Big Ten loss up until the final moments of the game.

After Saturday’s win, Barnes Arico broke out in joyous laughter when asked if she expected her team to have this much success.

“Oh my goodness, no,” Barnes Arico said. “But knock on some serious wood. You know what? It’s the kids. They are just unbelievable.”

It’s unbelievable that the Wolverines’ offense has transformed the team from probable cellar dweller to very possible NCAA Tournament team. If anyone thought this could’ve happened before the season, they would’ve been naïve.