Purdue isn’t simply another opponent on the Michigan women’s basketball schedule.

Yes, the Wolverines host the Boilermakers on Thursday for senior night, but the school located in West Lafayette resonates in other ways with someone involved with the Wolverine squad.

It’s not a player, coach, or trainer.

It’s the team’s graduate assistant, Stacey Lovelace.

Lovelace was a highly recruited player coming out of Detroit’s St. Martin De Porres High School and chose to play college ball at Purdue, turning down offers from several other Big Ten schools. The Boilermakers had just won a Big Ten championship the year before (1991), so the 6-foot-4 center decided to commit to a program where success was standard.

But that success she wanted to be a part of would have to wait for a year. Lovelace was thrust into a starting position despite her inexperience though she was glad her coach, Lin Dunn, had faith in her as a freshman through the team’s struggles that year. The 1992-93 team went 16-11.

“(Dunn) instilled a lot of trust in me,” Lovelace said. “When I played as a freshman, I was by no stretch ready to play in the Big Ten, but she gave me an opportunity to still play. … It made me realize (what) I needed to work on and get better at.”

Her improvements were immediately apparent as a sophomore — Lovelace averaged 11 points and seven rebounds per game as a part of the 1993-94 team, which reached the program’s first Final Four and set program records for wins (29), points (2,673), rebounds (1,491), assists (619) and steals (386).

Lovelace and Purdue were even better next year. The Boilermakers were ranked second in the preseason polls and won 10 straight games at the end of the season en route to the Elite Eight. Lovelace led the team in scoring and rebounds, and her contributions earned her national recognition. In addition to being the Big Ten Player of the Year and the Big Ten’s Most Valuable Player, she became Purdue’s third Kodak All-American.

Her senior year was much of the same. Lovelace again was the leading scorer and rebounder, and she also set the program records for rebounds and blocked shots in a career. Her efforts over the course of four years were a huge contribution to the later successes of the Boilermakers — Purdue welcomed Stephanie White, who would go on to become an All-American, when Lovelace was a senior.

And the national spotlight has remained focused on Purdue because of the foundations laid by the teams in the early 1990s.

“When I was there, we had top-three recruiting classes — a couple of years we had the number one recruiting class in the nation,” Lovelace said. “So being able to lay the groundwork as far as recruiting (and) being a part of something to this day (that) is still recognized nationally and not just in the Big Ten is a source of pride.”

Lovelace went on to have an eight-year stint playing professional basketball, both in the WNBA and various European leagues. And after she finished her professional basketball career, her options were wide open, so she went back to school.

And that’s how she came to Ann Arbor. After taking a year off to spend time with family, Lovelace enrolled in a master’s program at Michigan to pursue a career in business involving sports. Though she’s given up her professional career, her love for basketball endured.

She approached Michigan coach Kevin Borseth about a position with the team. All he could offer was the role of graduate assistant, but that was enough for Lovelace to accept.

Though it’s not a coaching position, Lovelace is still involved with the team, helping the coaches when needed in addition to offering advice to the squad.

“I’m very limited as far as my role with the team because being a graduate assistant, I can’t really do any coaching,” Lovelace said. “There’s not much I can do as far as their skills, but just listening and talking to them and letting them know things can turn around. … (I’ve) been where they want to be, been to where they are now.”

Those words of wisdom sound like what a coach would tell her players.

“I wasn’t really trying to get into the coaching business,” Lovelace said. “But I figured (that) at the end of this, I would know if I wanted to do coaching or wanted to go business, and either way I’d be fine.

“But being here and being around it, it makes me realize how much I could offer and help girls that are in this situation, so I feel I can make the most impact as a coach. I think they relate to me, I relate to them, (and) I think that it would be a natural fit for me. So I think I am going to pursue coaching. (But) right now I’m working towards my masters, and once that’s over I probably will go into coaching.”

She may not become Purdue’s next head coach, but Lovelace is still proud of her alma mater. She’s impressed with what Boilermakers coach Sharon Versyp has done with the program and hopes that Purdue will continue to maintain a high standard of excellence — just as Dunn did when Lovelace played.

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