Any opposing coach about to take on the Michigan women’s
basketball team would probably talk to you about his or her plans
to double team senior Jennifer Smith underneath or defend junior
Tabitha Pool. Smith, with her 21.3 points per game in the post, and
Pool, with her uncanny shooting ability, have posed the biggest
threats to Wolverine opponents for much of the season.

But opposing coaches should begin keeping their eye on another
emerging threat.

This threat comes in the form of lanky, 5-foot-11 Kelly Helvey.
As a freshman, Helvey has demonstrated more confidence and spunk
than any other player on the team.

Helvey has been getting more playing time — lately, in
part, because she’s been filling in for sophomore forward
Niki Reams, who is out with a foot injury.

But even after Reams returns — which could be as soon as
Michigan’s game against No. 18 Michigan State on Thursday
— Michigan coach Cheryl Burnett and the team would benefit
from keeping Helvey in its starting line-up.

Her self-assurance on the court and ability to get the ball to
the right teammate at the right time have often provided Michigan
with the fuel needed to keep going, even when fans and her
teammates have given up.

Perhaps hailing from south of the (Michigan) border —
Helvey is a native of Toledo, Ohio — makes her performance on
the court extra spicy.

Anyone who witnesses Helvey in action can immediately tell that
this freshman has a fiery air about her.

As her name was called for the starting lineup before
Sunday’s victory over Wisconsin, Helvey raced onto the court
smiling. Instead of just giving Pool the traditional high five,
Helvey jumped into the air, chest-bumping her teammate.

In the first seconds of the game, Helvey had the chance to take
a shot from just outside the key. But, after a quick study of her
teammates’ positions, she recognized that Pool was open under
the basket. Helvey passed the ball to the guard and Michigan had
its first two points of the game.

Again and again, Helvey makes smart passes, but has also shown
she is not afraid to put the ball up herself when she thinks the
shot is there.

“You’ve got to give (the ball) to whose going to
make the plays,” Helvey said.

Helvey did not bring much to Michigan’s offense in the
first half of the season, but has recently improved from the field.
The freshman contributed nine and 11 points in last week’s
games against Purdue and Wisconsin, respectively.

And while Helvey’s offensive production has steadily
improved, Reams has been much more hesitant to take the shot,
limiting her effectiveness on the offensive end.

Or maybe Helvey’s zesty performance comes from not being
plagued by something every other Michigan player must endure
— a past.

It’s no secret that the Michigan program has been
struggling for a couple years now. After some initial success,
former coach Sue Guevara ultimately led her team into a downward
spiral, going from a winning 2001 season (10-6 Big Ten, 19-12
overall) to a break-even ’02 season (6-10, 17-13) to a
depressing ’03 season (3-13, 13-16).

The seniors and juniors on this year’s team have been
around through thick and — in their case — mostly thin.
Reams and the other sophomores just have the memory of last
year’s disappointing record. When Michigan gets down in a
game, these weathered players may be quick to remember all the
contests they let slip away in past seasons.

But Helvey comes to Ann Arbor fresh off a successful basketball
career at Central Catholic High School in Toledo, where she
averaged 13 points and five rebounds per game in her senior
season.

So it’s no wonder that, when Michigan was down by 17
points at the half against Michigan State on Jan. 18, Helvey was
still ready to go, taking shots when the rest of her teammates had
lost all hope.

Helvey’s coach and teammates have also begun to notice
that the freshman’s court presence is essential.

“Kelly’s great,” junior point guard Sierra
Hauser-Price said. “She’s very aggressive and we need
that — she’s all over the place.”

First-year coach Cheryl Burnett agreed, commenting after the
Purdue game that “Kelly just did a great job of energizing us
… as well as adding some offense. Her confidence does a lot
for us and that’s special for a freshman.”

When Smith and senior Stephanie Gandy are gone next year,
Michigan will have to look to Helvey to keep this team afloat. But
if Burnett wants to keep this team from falling for the remainder
of this season, she’d be wise to make Helvey a permanent
starter now.

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