Standing at the podium in front of TV cameras and a gaggle of reporters, Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant stared emptily into the background. Her team just lost to Michigan, getting swept for the first time since 2015, and Merchant was looking for an answer.
“This was sort of a step backwards for (sophomore forward Kayla Belles and freshman forward Taiyier Parks),” Merchant said. “I think those two kids are very young, first year kids. … I’m proud of how they’ve developed, but you can also see their youth on a night like this. They can have some slippage.”
The two combined for 23 minutes and three points.
Twenty minutes earlier, Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico beamed behind the same podium, counting out on her fingers the names of the five players who finished Sunday’s 65-57 victory over the Spartans.
“Who’s going to be the next man up?” Barnes Arico said. “And Maddie Nolan rotated onto (Spartan guard Taryn McCutcheon) and Michelle Sidor took Maddie’s matchup and those are two freshmen. So we’re just talking about a lot of young kids who just came in, on the road, in a rivalry game, when the other team went back up and took the lead, and were able to win the game down the stretch.
“If you say Maddie Nolan, Michelle Sidor, Izabel Varejão, Naz Hillmon and Amy Dilk, that’s three freshmen and two sophomores.”
Barnes Arico finished her sentence with an emphatic, “Yeah!” and a fist pump, her smile nearly splitting her face.
With senior guard Akienreh Johnson and junior forward Hailey Brown out with injury, the three freshmen — Nolan, Sidor and Varejão — combined for 63 minutes and 13 points.
Since Nolan’s emergency call up to the starting rotation in early February, she’s been a stalwart defender and has found a way to contribute to the team in any way imaginable, whether it be blocks, assists or rebounds.
In her first 21 games as a Wolverine, Nolan played 6.33 minutes per game. In the last six games, she’s played 30.33 minutes per game — only costing the team once, when she fouled out against then-No. 19 Northwestern on Feb. 13.
Sidor, meanwhile, has emerged from a slump to start the Big Ten season. In part due to injuries, she’s earned Barnes Arico’s trust to play in big moments and be an offensive spark for Michigan.
Varejão has had her own rough patches, and her continuous foul troubles detract from her potential as a day-in, day-out double-double threat.
“I told Izabel the last couple of days,” Barnes Arico said. “ ‘You are getting a double-double. I’m feeling it, today is your day Iz. We need your toughness, we need your strength, today is your day for that double-double.’ And darn she was pretty close, if she wasn’t in foul trouble so much, she probably would have gotten it.”
When she sets foot on the court with Brown or sophomore forward Naz Hillmon, her offensive talent is immediately noticeable. Varejão, in the last couple of weeks, finally became the bench threat Barnes Arico has needed all season. When she gets on the court opposing defenses are immediately thrown off-center, leading to bursts of scoring.
So Sunday, when Johnson and Brown fouled out and the Wolverines’ youth was thrust into the most hostile environment Michigan has faced all year, they were ready. The three had hit their stride.
Instead of leaving their coach standing on the podium, blaming youth and talking about what could have been, they left her beaming and dreaming of what’s to come.