Understanding opponents is key for Michigan this weekend

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By Shannon Lynch, Daily Sports Writer
Published January 16, 2014

After pulling off an upset victory over No. 22 Purdue earlier this week, the Michigan women’s basketball team could be celebrating.

Instead, the Wolverines are preparing for Saturday’s contest against Illinois with the chance to earn their fourth Big Ten win. Though the Fighting Illini currently sit near the bottom of the conference, Crisler Center can expect to play host to a high-powered offensive battle of two aggressive teams.

“The Big Ten is so competitive this year and anybody can come into a game and get a win,” said junior guard Nicole Elmblad. “So some early success is great, but we can’t drop our guard at all.”

Minimizing turnovers and, in particular, halting the heavy offensive production of Illinois guard Ivory Crawford, will be key to Michigan’s success. In their latest victory, over Northwestern, the Fighting Illini shot 40 percent from the field and Crawford had 19 points, including the final 12, giving her team the boost it needed for a win.

Though she stands at 5-foot-10, Crawford poses the biggest threat to the Wolverines (3-1 Big Ten, 12-5 overall). She averages 15 points a game and has yet to finish a conference game with fewer than 19 points. Michigan is intent on keeping her under pressure and outside of her comfort zone on the court.

“We’re just looking to make them have to attack us, seeing as they have a lot of good shooters, especially in the zone,” said junior forward Cyesha Goree. “We just want to make sure we guard with a high hand — make them go up if they are a shooter, and if they are a driver, make them have to shoot.”

Because Illinois (1-3, 8-9) has demonstrated an ability to knock down shots with ease, it will be critical for the Wolverines to keep possession of the ball on offense and take advantage of the shot clock, especially after committing 17 turnovers against Purdue on Wednesday.

“Being young, we’re trying to figure out, is it a good take at this point or should we be trying to hold it? And when we try to hold it sometimes that leads to turnovers,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “Illinois is a team that’s going to do that the entire game, so if we don’t get better at it, we’re going to be in trouble come Saturday.”

In their last games, both Michigan and Illinois have been fortunate to rely on a single scorer to give them the edge late in the second half. For Illinois it was Crawford, and for Michigan it was sophomore guard Madison Ristovski.

Ristovski maintained Michigan’s lead over Purdue when Goree was taken out after getting into foul trouble. The Sterling Heights, Mich. native went 3-for-5 from outside the arc and finished the night with 17 points, her highest-scoring game since November. One of her timely 3-pointers helped keep a comeback at bay as the Wolverines cruised to an easy victory.

“She’s a great scorer and she knows how to score and put the ball in the basket, but I think her biggest attribute is that she’s just a ball player — she can find the open people, and she really just knows the game,” Elmblad said. “She’s really blossoming right now, and that’s great for our team because we’re going to need that spark going into these next games.”

The Wolverines will need to keep up the high scoring percentages they’ve notched in every conference game this season to keep the game close, and once again, getting a hold of defensive rebounds will be critical to Michigan’s success.

According to Goree, the most important thing Michigan needs to do Saturday is understand the kind of basketball Illinois wants to play and then force them into a different kind of game.

“Illinois looks to speed up the pace in basketball, so if we just slow it down and wait and don’t force any passes, I think we’ll be fine,” she said.