All season long, the Michigan women’s basketball team’s starting lineup has featured four permanent starters and one revolving door in the fifth spot.
But after a 3-6 finish to the regular season and a loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament that knocked the Wolverines off the NCAA Tournament bubble, Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico blew the lineup wide open to begin the WNIT.
In the Wolverines’ tournament opener against Cleveland State, a 72-50 victory at Crisler Center, three guards who are typically fixtures in the starting lineup — senior Shannon Smith, sophomore Siera Thompson and freshman Katelynn Flaherty — began the game on the bench in favor of sophomore guard Danielle Williams, junior guard Madison Ristovski and freshman forward Emoni Jackson.
It was the first start of Jackson’s career, and the first time all season that Smith and Thompson have been absent from the starting five.
“I think that sometimes, as coaches, you kind of get a little nervous to change things, and you kind of get comfortable in a set way,” Barnes Arico said. “Shannon and Siera and even Katelynn a little bit are kind of still stuck. They didn’t play exceptionally well our last two regular-season games, and they need to get back out of it.
“If we want to win this championship, we need those three — our three starting guards — to play at the same level everybody else is playing at right now.”
Still, it may have initially seemed counterproductive for Michigan to keep its first-, third- and fourth-leading scorers on the bench. But their replacements quickly proved that maybe a little bit of change was just what the Wolverines needed.
Picking up where she left off with her last two games of the regular season, Ristovski provided a boost for a Michigan offense that shot 44.3 percent from the floor but turned the ball over 13 times. Ristovski finished as the game’s second leading scorer, tallying 15 points on the strength of three 3-pointers.
Jackson added eight points of her own and exhibited her ability to play off the glass — she successfully converted multiple contested bank shots and grabbed four rebounds.
Williams isn’t a scorer by trade — she averages only one point and scored just two on Wednesday — but she made her presence felt as part of a 2-3 zone defense that completely neutralized Cleveland State. The Vikings barely made a quarter of their shots in the first half and didn’t reach a double-digit point total until 17 minutes into the game.
“I was really excited to be out there myself,” Ristovski said, “but for Emoni and Danielle and for all of us to get the opportunity to start the game — we were just so excited to just talk to each other and come out and set the tone really early.”
The change of pace didn’t just affect the players moving in and out of the starting lineup — it was a desperately needed fresh start after the Wolverines’ debilitating conference tournament loss to the Spartans two weeks ago.
“It took a while (to get over the loss),” said senior forward Cyesha Goree. “But once we came back, we knew we had a lot of work to do. Everybody really committed to being checked in, focused on being able to still do something that hasn’t been done yet. A WNIT championship (for Michigan) has not been done yet. There’s no reason to hang your head right now, because you still can do something great for this program.”
No one embodied that mentality more than the team’s new starters. Ristovski, Williams and Jackson rarely share the floor together during games, but they injected some new life into a team that had been struggling with inconsistency for over a month.
“Change, I feel like, always makes a difference,” Ristovski said. “It kind of shakes everyone up, and it forces certain players to excel at their game and play better because they want more minutes. It gives opportunities to other kids to get them really excited to be out there.
“Sometimes change just makes you play better because you know you have the opportunity to continue to play.”