While senior Janelle Cooper awed the crowd with her near-perfect outside shooting in Michigan’s win over Virginia Commonwealth Monday, there was a pair of forwards that was perfect from the inside.
Meet juniors Ashley Jones and Stephany Skrba.
The two combined to go 5-for-5 from the field in the 75-57 victory.
Nineteen points of those points came off the bench. And most of them couldn’t have happened at a better time.
When VCU senior Krystal Vaughn cut an early 14-point Wolverine lead to just five halfway through the first half, the juniors scored 12 of the next 19 Michigan points to help build the lead back up to 13. The Wolverines didn’t let the lead slip below double-digits for the rest of the game.
“They provide us a great lift off the bench,” assistant coach Mike Williams said. “Either could probably be starting but they give you such a bonus coming off because they’re a little more athletic than the players they come in for.”
That’s a strong statement, considering Jones wasn’t even playing substantial minutes until five weeks ago.
But since connecting with Skrba for three easy lay-ups in Bloomington on February 17, Jones has become a frequent contributor. And when her name is called, it’s usually with Skrba.
“They kind of feel each other out well,” Williams said. “AJ really has a knack to get the ball to Stephany, and Stephany kind of knows it’s coming.”
That “knack” has come from Jones’s improvement as a passer. Williams said she now does a better job of keeping her eyes up and having two feet on the ground to deliver the ball. Jones recorded three assists in Monday’s contest.
Though she works 35-40 minutes almost every day with coaches in player-maker drills, which emphasize individual skills, what may be more important to her teammates is the intensity she brings to the floor.
“One of things I feed off her is her energy,” Skrba said. “And she’s a very emotional player but in a positive way.”
While Jones’s emergence has come from behind the scenes, Skrba’s has been on display since the beginning of the season.
Despite flourishing during the non-conference schedule, Skrba struggled early in the Big Ten season. Her numbers dipped from eight points per game at the beginning of the year to five points per game halfway through the season.
Much of that was because she wasn’t used to running sets. With Borseth’s system, Skrba needed to learn to make reads and adapt to the motion offense.
Taking those lessons and improving her physical play, Skrba has become a more complete player, averaging 8.2 points in the previous five contests.
“I’ve become a more aggressive, more patient, smarter and just trying to improve every year,” Skrba said.
Since Borseth and the new coaching staff took over, both Skrba and Jones have made the transition between the post and the perimeter. While it has taken some time for both sides to adapt, the pair has settled much better into their positions.
And even though they may be listed as forwards, the two come from different directions.
“Stephany has been more of an inside player, but she can go outside – that’s a luxury for her,” Williams said. “And AJ’s more of a perimeter player now, but she can go inside.”
It was those different directions that helped limit the Rams on offense. Combining for 12 rebounds, Skrba and Jones are steadily developing a strong presence in the post.
But at the beginning of every game, they’re on the bench just a call away.
“They’re very versatile players for us,” Williams said.
They’re also a perfect combination.