In its first two Big Ten games, the Michigan women’s basketball team has made it look easy — its early success has led it to the best start in program history.
The Wolverines’ first Big Ten matchup came against Indiana on Jan. 3 in a dominating 65-48 victory. Michigan’s (2-0 Big Ten, 13-2 overall) second conference victory was a close 68-64 decision over Iowa, led by senior center Rachel Sheffer’s career-best 26 points.
On Sunday afternoon, the Wolverines will host Wisconsin (0-2, 8-7), which will prove to be their hardest conference opponent yet. Despite a disappointing start to the season, the Badgers have more talent than their record indicates.
“I think this group of players in this program are really special,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “And this group of five seniors, who have been together for four years, (want) to go out and do something that has never been done at Michigan before.”
In order to continue their early success, the Wolverines will continue to rely on their five seniors. Sheffer, guard Jenny Ryan and forward Kate Thompson lead Michigan in scoring, all three average double-digit points per game. Guard Nya Jordan and forward Sam Arnold also contribute heavily to the offense and through 15 games, the quintet accounts for 79 percent of the offense.
Leading the way on offense is Thompson, who now leads the country in 3-pointers per contest with 3.96 and averages 16 points per game. On defense, Jordan and sophomore forward Nicole Elmblad have helped quell the rebounding issues by adding more than 12 combined rebounds per game.
Like the Wolverines, Wisconsin has been plagued with early season injuries, but unlike Michigan, the Badgers have been unable to find help from their other players, resulting in its slow start. Despite injuries, Wisconsin still has a lot of offensive talent on the court.
As the Wolverines look for their ninth straight win, they will have to find an answer on defense to match the firepower of the Badgers’ scoring trio. Led by junior guard Morgan Paige’s 16.5 points per game and sophomore guard Jacki Gulczynski’s 11 points per game and six rebounds per game, Wisconsin is a lethal opponent.
The third scorer of the trio is usually sophomore guard Taylor Wurtz, who averages 12.6 points per game and seven rebounds per game, but Wurtz is out because she had back surgery at the beginning of last week. The loss of Wurtz has significantly hurt Wisconsin on the offensive side end.
“We need a third scorer, and we don’t have that with (Wurtz) out,” said Wisconsin coach Bobbie Kelsey. “It hasn’t manifested itself as of yet. But we’re still looking, and we hope we will get that person going here soon.”
In addition, the Wolverines have to look out for the Badgers’ junior forward Cassie Rochel who averages 2.8 blocks per game, which is good for first in the Big Ten and 15th in the nation. Rochel also leads the Badgers in rebounds with 7.9 per game. Michigan did a good job of blocking the lanes against Iowa’s Morgan Johnson, but Rochel, at 6-foot-4, will prove to be a much harder opponent to contain.
“Because we are limited in the post, we can’t leave our kids one on one,” Kelsey said. “Containing (Michigan’s) scorers is crucial to our success.”
Added Barnes Arico: “(Against Iowa), Sheffer made so many great plays and she also did a tremendous job on the defensive end on Johnson. She will (have to) continue her strong defensive effort against Wisconsin.”
As the Badgers look to win their first Big Ten game of the season, the Wolverines will fight to remain unbeaten in conference play and continue improving upon their best start in program history.
“The number-one goal is to get that Big Ten Championship and hang that Big Ten banner,” Thompson said. “That’s what we want to do.”