To be the best, you have to beat the best.
Monday night at the Crisler Center, the No. 25 Michigan women’s basketball team will attempt to do just that.
The Wolverines (4-0 Big Ten, 15-2 overall) will face their toughest challenge of the season against No. 9 Penn State (4-0, 14-2) in a battle for Big Ten supremacy. The Nittany Lions boast an explosive offensive attack that has led them to eight straight wins and an undefeated record in conference play. Both teams enter the contest as two of the hottest programs in the country, with the opportunity for Michigan to improve its winning streak to a program-record 11 victories.
“As a team, we’re not worried about their ranking,” said senior forward Nya Jordan. “A number doesn’t mean anything. Anybody can be beat.”
After cracking the Associated Press poll last week for the first time since December 2002, the Wolverines proved their worth in a 67-53 win against Northwestern on Thursday. The win in Evanston helped Michigan extend the longest current winning streak in the Big Ten to 10 games.
While the Wolverines were handled their business against the Wildcats, Penn State also displayed why it is currently the highest-ranked Big Ten team in the nation with a 84-40 dismantling of Wisconsin. The Nittany Lions have an all-time record of 28-9 against Michigan.
For the Wolverines, senior guard Kate Thompson leads the offense. Thompson averages a team-high 15.8 points per game while shooting .489 percent from behind the arc. On Thursday, Thompson set a program record with seven three-pointers on ten attempts.
As Penn State will likely clamp down on Thompson’s shooting game, senior forward Rachel Sheffer must continue to impose her will as Michigan’s main post presence. Senior guard Jenny Ryan’s experience will be relied upon to control the game’s tempo, though she may need to contribute more offensively if Thompson and Sheffer struggle early on.
The Nittany Lions are led by their two seniors, guard Alex Bentley and forward Maggie Lucas, who were both named to the “Wade Watch” list for the State Farm Wade Trophy, the Naismith Early Season Watch List, and the Wooden Award Top 30. Lucas averages 19.8 points per game this season, while Bentley carries her own weight with 12.8 per game. The pair has dominated teams early in games, as they did with their 11-0 run to start the match against the Badgers, which could bode troublesome for a Wolverines squad that hasn’t always come out of the gate firing.
“Penn State is a very good team, and they have very good players,” Thompson said. “We’ll have to work really hard at practice, especially on defense and rebounding.”
Another major concern for Michigan will be on the glass, where Penn State averages 7.2 more rebounds per game. Senior center Nikki Greene dominates the paint for the Nittany Lions, snatching 8.2 rebounds per game, fourth best in the Big Ten. While Michigan sophomore guard Nicole Elmblad leads the team with 6.6 rebounds per game, she may have a tough night competing with Greene, who is nearly five inches taller.
“Rebounding is always key in any game that you play, especially against great rebounding teams like Penn State,” Thompson said. “It’s going to be really important for us to stress that in practice.”
In what will be Michigan’s biggest game of the season, coach Kim Barnes Arico has issued a challenge to the maize and blue faithful to come support her team in the battle of the Big Ten unbeatens. For Barnes Arico and Michigan, a win would not only build upon the Wolverine’s best start in program history, but it would also be symbolic of the revolution that has occurred since Barnes Arico arrived in Ann Arbor.
“(The seniors) are terrific young ladies that are Michigan women and they would appreciate people in our community coming out to support them,” Barnes Arico said. “They’ve done things for our program that haven’t been done and represent our university and our community in just a first-class manner all around. I think it would be great for us to be playing in front of a great home crowd on Monday night because it really does help.”