It had been nearly a month since the Michigan women’s basketball team had tasted victory. Separated by a loss to Illinois and a Big Ten Tournament letdown, the Wolverines’ season was salvaged for at least one more game.
Wednesday night at Crisler Center, Michigan (8-10 Big Ten, 17-14 overall) finally got back on track in the first round of the WNIT. Behind an impeccable 2-3 zone defense and a well balanced offense, the Wolverines breezed past Cleveland State with a 72-50 rout in the teams’ first meeting since 1986.
“It was great to be able to play again after the Big Ten Tournament,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “I thought we came out of the gates and played exceptionally well — a lot of positives to take from tonight, but definitely happy to play again.”
The only true surprise came before the game, when junior guard Madison Ristovski and freshman forward Emoni Jackson started the game in place of sophomore guard Siera Thompson and senior guard Shannon Smith. Together, the duo scored 12 of the Wolverines’ first 16 points to help kick-start an offense that quickly built a double-digit lead early in the first half and never looked back.
From then on, the offense was powered by senior forward Cyesha Goree, who matched up with Cleveland State’s Alexis Eckles on the inside. With Eckles outsized by three inches, Goree played significantly better than she had at the Big Ten Tournament.
Despite her height advantage, Goree ran into trouble nearing the end of the first half as their defense keyed on her, making it hard to score when she felt open, being forced to kick the ball out to the guards.
“At halftime, Coach told the team ‘fake it and kick it,’ ” Goree said, “because now, everybody is drawing attention to me, so let’s get other players involved.”
One of those others included senior Nicole Elmblad, who moved to the guard position for the first time since last season. Regardless of the switch, she grabbed a game-high 11 rebounds and eclipsed 700 career rebounds with 708, becoming the 10th player in program history to do so.
Jackson, who had an energized first career start, also put in meaningful minutes by tacking on eight points. Ristovski took the bulk of the 3-point scoring en route to 15 points, replacing the production of Smith and freshman guard Katelynn Flaherty.
“(Ristovski’s) playing with a lot of confidence,” Barnes Arico said. “She’s playing very comfortable, and she’s playing really hard and making shots for us, which our other guards are really struggling with right now.”
Added Ristovski: “I was really excited. I think we all are, just because we’re in the postseason, and not that many basketball teams out there are still playing.”
As for Cleveland State’s offense, it never seemed to make it to Ann Arbor. The Vikings took a while to start up their engine, succumbing to a 20-3 Michigan run in the opening four minutes. The Wolverines scored seven points off 11 turnovers, and the 2-3 zone prevented Cleveland State’s best scorers from making an impact.
Guard Cori Coleman and forward Imani Gordon came in averaging 16.1 and 16.3 points, respectively, but the Michigan defense held them to a combined 26 points. At the start of the game, Gordon took nearly seven minutes to make a basket, while Coleman took 18.
“We knew they were going to be undersized,” Goree said. “It was kind of a mismatch for me, but at the same time you still have to guard them. So we decided to go zone and it was really effective.”
Cleveland State, which shot 32.7 percent, had gone scoreless for eight minutes during the first half before making five of its last seven shots heading into halftime, including a four-point play from Coleman. But even the rejuvenated effort was futile, as the Wolverines prevented the Vikings from clawing their way out of a deficit.
“On the defensive end, (the starters) were focused on the game plan and did a great job,” Barnes Arico said. “Cleveland State made some adjustments later in the first half and kind of started to penetrate the zone a little bit, but we came out of the gates really focused on both ends.”
In the closing seconds before halftime, Flaherty added the finishing touch by stealing the ball for a coast-to-coast layup at the buzzer, making fans stand on their feet as the sound of applause overtook Crisler.
Though it had been a while, Michigan could finally enter the locker room at halftime with things in its favor. And they stayed that way.