In a tumultuous season, the Michigan women’s basketball team has shown that it frequently lives and dies with its best player: senior forward Cyesha Goree.
The Wolverines’ best stretch of the Big Ten season — a 4-1 January surge including wins over Penn State, Michigan State, Ohio State and Northwestern — was fueled in large part by Goree’s 18.6 points and 10.2 rebounds per game.
Over the entire season, Goree’s 14.4 points per game and 55.1 shooting percentage make her both Michigan’s leading scorer and its most efficient.
But in the Wolverines’ last three games — all losses, by no coincidence — Goree just wasn’t able to stay on the floor.
In the losses to Rutgers, Ohio State and Northwestern, Goree committed 13 total fouls and played just 26 minutes per game. Prior to the losing streak, Goree was averaging 33 minutes.
Without her, Michigan was unable to muster any semblance of offense or defense — in separate second-half collapses, the Wolverines allowed a 12-0 run to the Buckeyes and suffered a six-minute scoring drought in a last-second loss against the Wildcats.
“Cyesha gets in foul trouble, and it just changes the dynamics of our team,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “Even if she’s not scoring, she gives an inside presence, and that changes what teams do against us defensively.”
Goree’s inside presence is something no one on Michigan’s roster can match, especially defensively. Senior forward Nicole Elmblad has stepped up her game as of late to make up for Goree’s extended absences. She has 22 points and 21 rebounds over the last two games, but the 5-foot-11 ex-guard playing power forward can only do so much.
Beyond Elmblad, just about all of the Wolverines’ key players are offensive-minded guards, including senior Shannon Smith, junior Madison Ristovski, sophomore Siera Thompson and freshman Katelynn Flaherty.
And even when given opportunities to come out victorious without Goree, those shooters haven’t been able to capitalize without her presence commanding attention in the middle.
“I thought we had some good looks, and we got to the line,” Barnes Arico said after the Northwestern loss. “And normally we make those free throws. … (To avoid scoring droughts), you get people to stay out of foul trouble. You get people to make shots.”
As Michigan’s only true post player, it’s unavoidable for Goree to pick up at least a few fouls per game — she has been whistled two times or fewer in just five games this season. But considering how depleted the Wolverines look without Goree, Barnes Arico wants to see fewer incidents like the over-aggressive dive for the ball that brought Goree her second foul in the first half against Northwestern.
“It was the third or the fourth foul when she was holding the back of the kid’s shirt — I think that she has got to remain disciplined,” Barnes Arico said. “It’s extremely difficult because people are attacking her all the time, but she’s got to keep her discipline about her and not give up silly ones.”
At this crucial stretch of the season, Michigan needs Goree on the floor more than ever.
The Wolverines (6-8 Big Ten, 14-11 overall) have just four games remaining before the Big Ten Tournament, and they may need to win all four and pick up multiple wins in the tournament to keep their fading NCAA Tournament chances alive. Michigan currently sits at eighth place in the Big Ten, meaning any conference tournament run would likely have to go through No. 5 Maryland, which is undefeated in the conference and beat the Wolverines by 26 at Crisler Center on Jan. 29.
Unless Michigan proves it can score and defend without Goree in the paint, any more foul trouble down the stretch could spell doom for the Wolverines’ postseason aspirations.