HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. — All season long, the focus of the Michigan women’s basketball team has been its senior class and the outrageous production it produces on a night in, night out basis.
On Thursday night in its 67-40 dismantling of Indiana (2-15 Big Ten, 11-19 overall) in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, the Wolverines got its offensive production in a different way: sophomore guard Nicole Elmblad and the rest of the bench.
Going into the game, Michigan (10-7, 21-9) was getting 84-percent of its scoring from its senior quintet of forwards Rachel Sheffer (12.8 points per game), Kate Thompson (14.9), Sam Arnold (5.4) and Nya Jordan (8.3), along with guard Jenny Ryan (10.4).
In comparison, the Wolverines have just averaged 11.7 points from its bench and 4.1 points from Elmblad.
Thursday was a whole other story, as Elmblad paced Michigan with 14 points, including eight in the first half.
“Letting her know we have the confidence in herself to shoot the ball (was pivotal),” Sheffer said. “Once we all have the confidence to do it, we can go really far.”
Contributing on both ends of the court, Elmblad grabbed ten rebounds — five of them offensive.
Playing against a coach that heavily recruited her while at Bowling Green in current Indiana coach Curt Miller, Elmblad stepped up.
“Nicole should have come play for me at Bowling Green, but we didn’t quite get to the finish line with her,” Miller said. “I love Nicole Elmblad, but we insulted her tonight and tried to make her the star of the game and helped off – to help with the struggles that we had in the first two games with Nya Jordan and Sam Arnold, and we were going to make her score baskets.
“Not only did she score some points, but by playing off of it, she got a lot of free running lanes open to rebounding. And Nicole really hurt us with her offensive rebounding. And as a kid, one of the kids that I’d love to recruit through the years, I’m really happy for her, disappointed that she had such a great game, but my staff, who recruited her very hard to Bowling Green, is a huge fan and she had a great game tonight.”
Not known as a facilitator either, Elmblad distributed five assists as well – good for another career high.
The one that stood out the most came in the second half, when Michigan opened the stanza on a 16-5 run. Following a possession in which she notched two offensive rebounds before finishing underneath for an easy put-back, Elmblad picked up the ball after an Indiana turnover and raced down court in transition.
Given space, she had the option to pull up from 15 feet and take an unguarded jumper, but instead Elmblad paused and let a defender jump in front of her, as Arnold stood in the right corner, ready for another uncontested jump shot. Elmblad gave the extra pass, and Arnold finished to extend lead to 21.
“I think that was one of our goals as a team – to just get out as a team in transition and get some baskets,” Elmblad said. “I think that really energized the team.”
Elmblad would do the same a couple possessions later, making the extra pass to Sheffer, who knocked down a straight-away 3-pointer.
While Elmblad stepped up huge for Michigan, the bench did too, scoring 20 points — nearly double its season’s average.
By getting a large lead early in the second half, Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico was able to have Ryan play just 27 minutes – ten below her season average. In Ryan’s place was freshman guard Madison Ristovski and sophomore guard Brenae Harris, who combined for nine points, nearly doubling Ryan’s output of five points.
Also coming off the bench was Arnold, who scored seven points and collected three rebounds in 19 minutes. In comparison, Sheffer and Thompson had four rebounds apiece, but in 30 minutes of play.
In Sheffer’s eyes, this is what this typically eight-man deep team has been hoping for all season – though nine played tonight.
“I think tonight really showed the depth of our team,” she said. “We had people coming off the bench, scoring, contributing defensively, just knowing we have threats all the way down our bench really helps us know that we can just score with whoever is out there.”