After losing in East Lansing in front of a raucous crowd of 8,812 on Monday in Michigan State’s pink night, the Michigan women’s basketball team held its own “Pink Game” on Thursday. With breast-cancer survivors on hand, the Wolverines looked to recover from their season-high three-game losing streak and begin a fresh start for the rest of the season against Illinois (6-4 Big Ten, 13-9 overall).
And with the inspiring messages and stories from a group of women in attendance, that’s exactly what Michigan (6-4, 17-6) did, beating the Fighting Illini, 72-69.
The Wolverines wore maize jerseys with pink trimming to go along with pink shoes, and a different breast-cancer survivor introduced each starter before she took the floor.
But that wasn’t the first interaction the players had with this strong group of cancer survivors.
“A couple weeks ago, we had those women that announced the (lineup) tonight come and have dinner with us,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “They spoke to our team about their stories: how long they’ve been a survivor, how they battled through their cancer (and) how they found out about their cancer. I think it really hit home with our team.”
Before each game that Michigan plays, it likes to instill three goals into the players’ minds to prepare them for the challenge ahead. Tonight, the group of women on hand was the last of the three goals, but clearly the most inspiring.
For a team having lost four out of its last five games, it was exactly what the Wolverines needed.
Senior forward Rachel Sheffer, who was held to 12 points on 5-of-15 shooting against the Spartans, led the Wolverines with 15 points in the first half and 21 in the game to go along with seven rebounds. Michigan plays a “Pink Game” each season, but Thursday was one of the best memories and experiences she’s had in one.
“I think being able to connect more than we have in the past is really awesome,” Sheffer said.
While Sheffer propelled Michigan by scoring the team’s first nine points, it was the play of senior forwards Nya Jordan and Kate Thompson that helped the Wolverines clinch the game.
After coming off a poor stretch of games, Thompson seemed to find her shot again in the most critical part of the game, hitting two 3-pointers in the final four minutes to give Michigan the lead it had briefly lost.
After a series of misses, it wasn’t clear if the Wolverines would attempt to go to Thompson to help them win, but she was able to deliever.
“(Freshman guard) Madison (Ristovski) found me at the end of the game,” Thompson said. “She gave me some really great passes. My teammates having confidence in me and knowing I can shoot, that really helps.”
While Thompson’s late 3-pointers allowed Michigan to find the lead, it was a Jordan layup late in the game that sealed it for the Wolverines.
Holding onto a three-point lead in the final minutes, Jordan was able to collect her second offensive rebound and ninth overall rebound of the game before banking in a shot to make it a five-point lead with 29 seconds left.
Perhaps it was just the ebb and flow of the game that helped carry the Wolverines to victory tonight, but with a special group of women in attendance, maybe it was more than that.
“To hear those stories, they realized, ‘Hey, it could happen to anyone of us at any given time’ and I think it was just a bit of a wake-up call, and also a great connection for our kids to bond with that group of women,” Barnes Arico said. “I think our kids did a really great job of playing inspired for them tonight.”