Thompson's wild first half pushes Michigan to win over Illinois

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By Lev Facher, Daily Sports Writer
Published January 18, 2014

If Cyesha Goree’s sprawling, reckless, into-the-boards save midway through the Michigan women’s basketball team’s 69-60 win over Illinois on Saturday isn’t emblematic of the Wolverines’ season, not much else is.

But the junior forward, much like her team as a whole, has spent the 2013-14 season taking the leap out of relative obscurity and into the spotlight. Goree and Michigan (4-1 Big Ten, 13-5 overall) are known around the country as up-and-comers and forces to be reckoned with. And they’ve taken those steps in the least expected of ways and at the least expected of times.

But with the Wolverines, it’s reached the point where they’ll only surprise by not surprising — it’s been months since the team hasn’t shown marked signs of improvement from one game to the next.

So when Goree — who averaged 1.1 points in 2.7 minutes per game last year — went charging into the scorer’s table, using one hand to prevent a nasty collision and the other to fling a no-look, behind-the-back pass that ended up resting comfortably in the hands of junior guard Shannon Smith, the crowd went wild. But nobody had to look twice.

“She’s the biggest player on the court,” Smith said of Goree. “And she’s hustling more than anyone out there.”

And when freshman guard Siera Thompson seemingly forgot how to miss a 3-pointer in the first half, the faithful cheered, but Thompson wasn’t surprising anybody. She ended up draining four threes on as many attempts in the first half and added another in the second, pacing Michigan with 19 points, all but four of which came on shots from beyond the arc.

Goree’s heroics gave the Wolverines a four-point lead heading into the locker room after Smith found her way to the right wing, was clubbed in the act of shooting a 3-pointer and drained all three foul shots.

Encouraging hustle and toughness is such an ingrained part of Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico’s philosophy that she’s developed a system to specifically quantify those traits. Every time a player “makes a hustle play,” she earns a sticker of a basketball that goes on the block ‘M’ on her locker.

“Last game, (Goree) had four,” Barnes Arico said. “I don’t have half the team that has four on the season.”

For a while, though, it seemed that Goree’s efforts wouldn’t be necessary. After falling behind 11-4, the Wolverines went on a dominant 20-2 run, charged by a trio of Thompson threes and a stifling 2-3 zone on the defensive end.

“(Goree) was doing a good job of turning and finding me when she was double-teamed,” Thompson said. “Our chemistry is great on and off the court, and I think that shows.”

But Illinois rode its defense and hot shooting from sophomore Ivory Crawford to climb back into the game late in the first half, trailing by only one until Smith’s free throws gave Michigan a four-point cushion.

But the Wolverines went on another run early in the second half and held the Fighting Illini at arm’s length throughout the rest of the game. Smith came alive offensively after the break, scoring 14 points to make up for Thompson’s relatively cool post-halftime shooting.

As they have all season, turnovers continued to plague Michigan. When the Wolverines moved the ball well and avoided Illinois’ frequent backcourt traps, players like Thompson and sophomore guard Madison Ristovski found themselves with open looks from beyond the arc. But when the pressure was too much, Michigan passes ended up in Fighting Illini hands — Ristovski alone coughed the ball up seven times.

The resulting points in transition prevented the Wolverines from effectively sealing the win until late, but they had no trouble slamming the door in the final minutes.