As April begins and the collegiate year draws to a close, there are only eight women’s basketball teams in the country that are still playing.
And while it’s not one of the four battling for the national championship, Michigan is playing in April for the first time in program history.
Fresh off a 69-60 win over Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg last Sunday, the Wolverines return to Crisler Center on Wednesday to face UCLA in their first WNIT semifinal matchup since 2010.
Just two wins away from hanging the first women’s basketball banner at Crisler, the team couldn’t be more excited to be back in Ann Arbor. And after two WNIT victories in front of raucous road crowds — at Toledo and Southern Mississippi — Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico wants the Wolverine faithful to create a similar environment.
“Any time (this season) that we have a had a tremendous crowd, a supportive crowd and a rowdy crowd, it has made the difference between winning and losing,” Barnes Arico told WTKA Radio on Tuesday. “It gets the team so fired up, and it really is a wonderful environment.”
Michigan (20-14) is hoping for a strong turnout Wednesday night, but lately, it hasn’t really mattered where the Wolverines are playing.
Despite playing two games in unfriendly territory, Michigan managed to escape with two wins in large part due to its seniors, who have been bound and determined to extend their careers. Led by senior forwards Nicole Elmblad and Cyesha Goree and senior guard Shannon Smith, Michigan has been playing arguably its best basketball of the season.
Most recently, Elmblad filled the stat sheet against Southern Mississippi with 14 points, five rebounds, five assists and four steals, all while holding leading scorer Tamara Jones to six points. Goree added 15 points and 12 boards for her 17th double-double of the season, and Smith posted 11 points of her own.
“All through this WNIT run, we have been led by our seniors,” Barnes Arico said. “They don’t want to stop playing. Nicole is playing with so much confidence right now — she has been a difference-maker for us on both ends of the floor.
“We have five people (scoring) in double figures, and that really makes it hard for other teams to defend us. A lot of times when (Elmblad) wasn’t scoring during the course of the season, people would step off of her and double Cyesha. Now that Nicole is knocking down that shot, it makes it that much tougher.”
The Wolverines will have to continue that momentum Wednesday against a team that barely made the tournament but has caught fire as of late.
The Bruins (17-18) entered the WNIT as the only team in the field with a losing record — two and a half games below the next-worst team in the field — but they have now won four straight contests. They won three of the four by double digits, along with a five-point upset of NCAA Tournament bubble team San Diego (24-7).
UCLA’s offense is led by a trio of guards — Nirra Fields, Jordin Canada and Kari Korver — that, together, scores 30 points per game. The rest of the Bruins’ lineup has been fluid all season — nine other players, including guard Dominique Williams (twin sister of Michigan sophomore guard Danielle), have made at least one start and appeared in at least 17 games.
“UCLA is super athletic and really, really big,” Barnes Arico said. “They have probably six or seven players on their four-five rotation that they rotate in and out, play about 10-12 minutes a game, and they’re all about 6-2, 6-3.”
As the Wolverines make their push to advance to their first-ever postseason championship game, they expect to lean heavily both on their seniors and their fans at Crisler Center.
And though Barnes Arico doesn’t know what to expect from the crowd Wednesday, her team has earned the support of the Michigan athletic community, including athletic director Jim Hackett and men’s basketball coach John Beilein, who attended last Thursday’s game against Missouri.
“(Beilein) is just the most supportive coach and coworker, and just tremendous to work with,” Barnes Arico said. “He said, ‘Kim, everyone’s going to be there (Wednesday). I will be there, (my team) will be there, and anything we can do to support you and your program, we will do.’ ”