Michigan women’s basketball coach Kim Barnes Arico is guarded with her optimism, and there wasn’t much optimism to be had when she lost her leading scorer the day before the Wolverines’ tilt with No. 15 LSU on Saturday.
After losing junior guard Shannon Smith to a back injury in the second half of Michigan’s blowout win over Texas Tech, keeping things respectable against LSU seemed like a much more reasonable expectation than coming away with a win.
But the Wolverines met the first expectation and came a possession away from pulling off a shocking upset to meet the second. Barnes Arico, though, isn’t letting it reshape her assessment of what she has referred to periodically as a “transition year.”
“I think it’s a sign of things to come,” Barnes Arico said. “Everybody’s role became a little greater (without Smith).”
It was not, in other words, a sign that Michigan (5-3) is in a position to contend for a Big Ten championship a year or two earlier than expected.
Signs of the Wolverines’ youth were still prevalent, even in the process of taking one of the country’s top teams down to the wire. Michigan gifted LSU the basketball 23 times, any one of which could easily have made the difference in Saturday’s 64-62 nail-biter.
To be fair, the Lady Tigers brought the defensive pressure throughout the night at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. When the Wolverines broke through the press, the points came, but the breakthroughs were few and far between.
“They double-teamed us like crazy,” Barnes Arico said. “We haven’t faced that kind of length or that kind of size all year long.”
In Smith’s absence, the other two guards in Michigan’s starting lineup had no choice but to step up, and they did so admirably. Freshman Siera Thompson scored 24 points on Friday and added another 13 against LSU, while sophomore Madison Ristovski overcame an off night against Texas Tech to add 13 of her own in the tournament final.
“We looked at each other and said that we’re still a team … we can still do this,” Ristovski said. “I didn’t try to put pressure on myself, but I tried to max out my game as much as I could.”
Senior forward Val Driscoll helped pick up some of the slack as well, earning the start in Smith’s absence, racking up 11 rebounds and six blocks against LSU. The lineup change worked out well for the Wolverines, who needed to go bigger to contend with the Lady Lions’ size.
Barnes Arico also cited freshman guard Paige Rakers as a player worthy of the fifth spot in the starting lineup, but said she felt more comfortable with Driscoll’s experience. “We feel like (Rakers) is more comfortable, even a sparkplug for us coming off the bench.”
With or without Smith, it may be naïve to suggest that Michigan didn’t shift any expectations with its performance over the weekend. The Wolverines might not be world-beaters, or even one of the better teams in the conference. But had Barnes Arico seen into the future before the season started and watched them go toe-to-toe with a top-20 opponent, the “transition year” buzzword might have never found a place within her repertoire.