With the final seconds of overtime ticking down on the Michigan women’s basketball team’s 100-94 win against Ohio State, coach Kim Barnes Arico looked out onto the court and smiled.
And she kept smiling as she went down her bench, hugging every player, coach and trainer.
“I know how incredibly hard everyone works everyday, and I was just so proud of them,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “This is an Ohio State team that’s been playing extremely well that has a lot of talented kids on their team, and we stuck together to find a way to win.”
Her team had just beaten a Buckeye squad that had won seven in its last eight games, a team that featured the first and 15th-leading scorers in the nation, and everything that could have possibly gone right went right for Barnes Arico and the Wolverines.
Before the season began, there were four big question marks that Barnes Arico was concerned with: rebounding, senior forward Cyesha Goree, youth and the strength of the Big Ten.
When Barnes Arico started her hug line, she did so because her questions had been emphatically answered.
First, there was rebounding.
While Michigan is still one of the shortest teams in the Big Ten, rebounding hasn’t been as big of an issue as Barnes Arico thought it would be.
The Wolverines have stood their ground on both the offensive and defensive glass with Goree and senior forward Nicole Elmblad leading the charge, grabbing a majority of the rebounds. But with contributions from freshman forward Jillian Dunston and senior guard Shannon Smith, Michigan has done just fine on the glass.
Sunday’s game against the Buckeyes showcased the team’s rebounders, with Goree pulling down 19 while Elmblad had eight. As a team, the Wolverines outrebounded Ohio State by 14 by the end of the game.
The Wolverines are still an undersized team, and with the rest of the Big Ten schedule looming, rebounding is a question they are going to have to continue answering every single night.
But against the Buckeyes, they looked like they had a cheat sheet decoding the bounces of the ball.
The second worry Barnes Arico had was whether or not Goree could repeat her second team All-Big Ten performance now that she has received some recognition for her efforts.
While Goree wasn’t double teamed as much against Ohio State, she has had to fend off double and even triple teams most games. But she has found a way to still average a double-double.
“She is the number-one person on everyone’s scouting reports after she wasn’t on anyone’s scouting report last year,” Barnes Arico said.
Added Smith: “I think we have the best big in the country.”
And Sunday against Ohio State, Goree only strengthened that opinion.
Not only did Goree earn herself a double-double by halftime, she played the intangibles — diving for loose balls or fighting for space inside — as well as anyone could have.
With 18 points to go along with 19 rebounds, Goree made a statement to the rest of the league that she is going to be an inside presence every night, despite her name appearing at the top of every team’s scouting report.
But Goree is just one piece. Other teams still know Michigan has just three seniors, and no matter how Goree and her senior counterparts played, Barnes Arico was worried about the youth of the team and if they would be able to handle the pressures of a tough Big Ten schedule.
But Sunday, over half of the players who played for the Wolverines were underclassmen, and while they didn’t have as much impact as Smith or Goree, all five underclassmen contributed in some way.
Freshman guard Katelynn Flaherty was on point, as usual, with her shot, scoring 24 points on six-for-11 shooting from behind the arc, and bounced back from her four-point performance at Rutgers.
Flaherty has answered her coach’s questions about youth by making Barnes Arico forget there ever was one.
“Sometimes I have to remind myself that she is still a freshman playing college basketball at the highest level,” Barnes Arico said.
Sophomore Danielle Williams’ hustle and defense were integral as she was a big part of a full-court press that stonewalled the Buckeyes from crossing half court at times.
And while freshman forward Jillian Dunston and sophomore guard Siera Thompson both struggled with foul trouble, the duo still contributed a combined 10 points to the cause.
But even if all of those things went well, Barnes Arico was worried about the talent of the Big Ten. But after five games of conference play, the Wolverines have proven that they can hang with the best in the Big Ten, as they have beaten three top teams in the conference, including both of last year’s co-champions in Penn State and Michigan State
“Our league is so good. I know for years they’ve said that on the men’s side, and the women’s side wasn’t on par with the other conferences in the country,” Barnes Arico said. “But that has changed, and you put Rutgers and Maryland in the league, those are two top teams year in and year out with Hall of Fame coaches.
“The challenge every night is to keep that intensity each and every single night, because if you have a letdown in this league, you’re going to lose.”
Michigan’s loss to Rutgers on Wednesday gave Barnes Arico little to smile about, but after its win over Ohio State, Barnes Arico couldn’t stop grinning.
Just because the Wolverines answered all of Barnes Arico’s preseason questions doesn’t necessarily mean Michigan will win the National Championship, because it is going to have to answer the same questions night in and night out.
But for one game, at least, everyone contributed to the victory.
And everyone got a hug.
Minh Doan can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter @_minhdoan