INDIANAPOLIS — Even after a 25-point win in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, Michigan women’s basketball coach Kim Barnes Arico had to take a moment to clarify something with junior guard Shannon Smith during Thursday night’s postgame press conference.
“What color are your parents going to be wearing, Shannon?” Barnes Arico asked.
Smith smiled and the room filled with laughter as she confidently gave her coach the sought-after reply: “maize and blue.”
It’s good for the Wolverines (8-8 Big Ten, 18-12 overall) to know that their leading scorer’s parents, both of whom attended Michigan State, will be present to lend their support for their second-round matchup against the Spartans — and they might need it against the No. 19 team in the nation.
Michigan takes on No. 2 seed Michigan State (13-3, 21-8) Friday evening in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament. The game is a rematch of Jan. 12’s 79-72 Michigan State victory in Ann Arbor, in which the visitors pulled away in the game’s final minutes, disappointing the Wolverines’ largest home crowd of the season.
Despite the loss, Michigan made it quite apparent that beating the perennial in-state power was well within the realm of possibility. The game was tied with five minutes remaining, but the Spartans converted eight consecutive free throws from 48-second mark onward, and the Wolverines couldn’t answer.
In that contest, freshman guard Siera Thompson scored 16 points, tying Spartan forward Annalise Pickrel for the game high.
The Wolverines have improved substantially since early January, though, when its forwards were less of a scoring threat and its guards’ respective roles were less clearly defined. Junior forward Cyesha Goree is a force on the boards no matter which end of the court she’s on, and senior Val Driscoll has shown herself recently to be comfortable shooting a mid-range jumper, forcing defenses to press forward and give Goree space to receive low-post lobs that Driscoll has become especially adept at delivering.
The guards, too, have become more predictable in their roles, much to the Wolverines’ benefit. Thompson is good for at least a dozen points on most nights, while Smith seems equally content scoring seven or scoring 20, as needed. And while sophomore guard Madison Ristovski has been eased out of her early season starting role, she still gets plenty of playing time in a rotation that tends to go only six-deep, and Ristovski has experienced her fair share of late-game heroics from beyond the 3-point line.
Michigan’s improvement — most notably, Goree’s dominance on the glass — hasn’t gone unnoticed around the league. After the Wolverines’ 25-point victory over Indiana in the tournament’s first round, Hoosier coach Curt Miller couldn’t stop singing their praises.
“Michigan is the hardest-working team in the league, bar none,” Miller said. “You get them to make a miss and they can take your soul away when they get those offensive rebounds.”
The Wolverines’ success often goes hand-in-hand with that of the two players Barnes Arico cites frequently as being their hardest workers: Goree and junior forward Nicole Elmblad.
Goree ended up with a double-double against the Spartans on Jan. 12, but she didn’t get much rebounding help from her teammates, none of whom finished with more than five boards. But if Elmblad can replicate her 11-rebound performance from Thursday night, the Wolverines will be in business.
Scheduling will be a factor, too, as the Wolverines are operating on less than 24 hours’ rest after Thursday’s first-round contest. The Spartans haven’t played since Sunday, when they beat Indiana to clinch a share of the regular-season Big Ten title.
Michigan will have its hands, without a doubt. But if Thompson and Smith can contain Michigan State’s high-flying freshman guard Aerial Powers, and if Goree and Driscoll can make things happen on the glass, a date with Nebraska Saturday evening could be next.