The Michigan women’s basketball team didn’t just lose critical leadership with the departures of Cyesha Goree, Nicole Elmblad and Shannon Smith — it also lost 59 percent of its rebounding, one of the strengths that boosted the Wolverines into the 2015 WNIT Semifinals.

Michigan’s best returning rebounders are senior forward Kelsey Mitchell and sophomore forward Jillian Dunston, but they will need help in recreating Goree and Elmblad-like results. Mitchell is still recovering from two seasons worth of injuries, and Dunston is still finding her groove at the college level. 

That’s where Hallie Thome steps in.

The freshman is now the Wolverines’ tallest player and the first 6-foot-5 center since Krista Phillips (2009-10), making her one of Michigan’s most valuable assets beneath the basket this year. On her way to becoming Ohio’s Gatorade High School Player of the Year, Thome averaged 19.5 points, 9.1 rebounds and 4.6 blocks during her senior year in Chagrin Falls.

The impressive stat sheet would make any college basketball program chase the four-star recruit, but Thome’s eye had always been on Michigan, especially after she suffered a knee injury her junior year that sidelined her for all but six games.

“I took it as whoever’s going to leave, I don’t want them,” Thome said. “It’s basketball at the college level — you’re going to get hurt. I wanted to make sure I had people who had my back, so Michigan was calling and texting every day and making sure I was good. It just helped me realize even more that they’re always there for me, and I (was) part of the family even though I hadn’t committed yet.”

With two weeks of practice under her belt, the results have been a “pleasant surprise” for Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico, who has never coached a player of Thome’s stature and skill.

Even with the expectation for Thome to help take over the rebounding presence left behind by Goree and Elmblad, there is still a lot of work ahead for the freshman. She only just started seriously lifting this summer, something the upperclassmen have been doing for years.

Thome is also dealing with the challenges brought by the bigger and more physical male practice squad that the team competes against, especially since the only boy she had ever played against previously was her brother.

“She’s obviously still a work in progress,” Barnes Arico said. “She has never played against the size and the speed that she’s going to face with the Marylands of the world or the Rutgers of the world. With the teams in our league, she’s never experienced that. She’s shown in the last 10 practices the ability to hang in there and do a really good job. But with her, it’s going to be some days really good, and some days she’s going to get banged up.”

Added Thome: “It’s challenging at times. … In high school, I wouldn’t say it was easy, but I mean, now I’m playing against people who are bigger and stronger. It’s definitely good to see the challenges and take them on each day.”

But Thome has had a helping hand in adjusting to college life. After coming to campus, she immediately clicked with senior guard Madison Ristovski — a familiar face from her past.

In eighth grade, Thome started attending the basketball camps in Ann Arbor and caught the eye of then-head coach Kevin Borseth, who put her on the Wolverines’ recruiting radar early on. During practice games, Thome was placed on a team with Ristovski, then a senior in high school who had just committed to Michigan.

“We always joke about it,” Thome said. “I couldn’t catch the ball when I was younger, and she is good at those sneak passes. (Now) she’s like, ‘Hallie, I just need you to catch a ball. Just be ready, because it’s gonna come to you.’ It’s great to see the progress from what it was back then to what it is now working together.”

Added Ristovski: “She always says she couldn’t catch anything, and she couldn’t finish. We laugh about it now, because who would’ve thought four years later, here she is and here I am.”

Over the summer, Ristovski partnered with Thome during weight training and has since been one of her teachers as Thome has gotten used to the faster pace and tougher atmosphere of college basketball. It’s only one example of how Ristovski has gladly taken on senior responsibilities as she helps foster the growth of the younger players.

“On Twitter, I saw something about preseason freshman of the year. … It wasn’t Hallie. It was some girl from Nebraska,” Ristovski said. “I screenshotted it, sent the picture to her and I said, ‘This is motivation. Understand what you’re doing everyday. It’s going to make a difference when the season comes.’ ”

Thome wasn’t the preseason freshman of the year, but in due time, she will have a few accolades of her own — maybe many. For her, there couldn’t be a better place to earn them than Michigan. For the last five years, it has felt like home.

Now, it finally is. 

“I can’t ask for anything better,” Thome said. “I have to take it all in, relax and do my thing.”

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