The Michigan women’s basketball team wants to hang a banner in Crisler this season — and winning the WNIT is its last hope. In the third round of the tournament on Thursday night, the Wolverines (11-5 Big Ten, 24-9 overall) will face off against St. John’s, a team no current player has ever faced.
But while the Red Storm (10-7 Big East, 22-11 overall) might be unfamiliar to the players, Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico is very well-acquainted with them. Barnes Arico coached St. John’s for a decade before starting at Michigan in 2012, making the matchup personal.
“I’ve had an opportunity to coach a lot of the (former) players that will be coaching tomorrow,” Barnes Arico said on WTKA Radio.
Since she has worked with many of the Red Storm’s staff members, one might expect similar coaching styles, but St. John’s will almost certainly have a different game plan than Arico’s Wolverines.
“They’re a tough team,” Barnes Arico said. “They are a really defensive team. They hold their opponents to about 60 points a game. They’re very different than we are, so it's going to be important for us to get out and transition and play our style of play and not really allow them to slow down the tempo.”
Michigan is known for its high-scoring offensive trio of freshman guard Kysre Gondrezick, sophomore center Hallie Thome and junior guard Katelynn Flaherty, who average 50.1 points per game together. St. John’s is also led by a trio of double-digit scorers, but forward Jade Walker and guards Akina Wellere and Aaliyah Lewis tally just 36.4 points on average.
Recently, Michigan has been picking up more points from other players. Junior forward Jillian Dunston scored eight points against Wright State in the second round of the WNIT. In the first round, senior Siera Thompson picked up 10 points and sophomore guard Nicole Munger added nine to finish off Kent State.
The Wolverines ran into problems in their last regular-season games as they were unable to compensate for other teams guarding their leading scorers closely. But in this tournament so far, Michigan has utilized its role players more effectively on offense.
Yet, the Red Storm have a few advantages over the Wolverines. St. John’s has six players who have tallied over 100 rebounds, while Michigan only has four. The Red Storm have also blocked 144 shots this season, compared to the Wolverines’ 111.
With a crack-down on defense, Michigan will need to continue to use all five players to rack up points; and with all the extra postseason practice, several less familiar faces may continue to see more minutes.
“We really gave everyone an opportunity to contribute and to show that they deserve some minutes during this run here in the WNIT,” Barnes Arico said. “(Senior guard) Danielle Williams just had an outstanding week and she got the start (against Kent State). And she’s a senior that hasn’t played a ton of minutes all year and could have hung her head and pouted but really responded.
“(Forward) KeAsja Peace — one of our freshmen who hasn’t played a lot of minutes, but a big kid inside — she got a chance to get in the game. Kayla Robbins is another freshman who has really shown the ability to give us some great minutes.”
Both teams are trying to make program history in this tournament. The Red Storm are fighting for their first appearance in the quarterfinals of the WNIT, while Michigan lost in the quarterfinals in both of its past two seasons. But the Wolverines have a big target on their back.
“Everybody is gunning for us,” Barnes Arico said. “I think everybody thinks that we’re one of the best teams in the WNIT.”