The Michigan women’s basketball team has won nine of its last ten games, including two of its first three Big Ten contests. On Sunday, the Wolverines’ veracity will be put to the test in the regular season’s most important opponent: Ohio State.
In the first of two matchups between the teams, the 10th-ranked Buckeyes (14-2, 3-0 Big Ten) will come into Crisler Center and give No. 22 Michigan (13-3, 2-1 Big Ten) its best chance at a signature win.
The Wolverines’ three losses have all come against top-25 opponents. Two opponents — Notre Dame and Louisville — are ranked in the top three nationally. The third, Iowa, was a road game against a team of similar caliber to Michigan. In other words, if Las Vegas set lines for women’s college basketball, the Wolverines would have been underdogs in all three of those games.
In all likelihood, the same goes for this one. However, there’s reason to believe Michigan can pull off an upset.
Senior guard Katelynn Flaherty has struggled from outside in her last two games, going a combined 4-for-18. That’s largely been due to more attention paid to her by opposing defenses — teams have begun to face-guard Flaherty, who averages a team-high 22.9 points per game. At this point, however, the Wolverines are ready for it.
“She has faced face-guarding, she’s faced triangle-and-twos, she’s faced double-teams,” said coach Kim Barnes Arico. “So, she’s kind of experienced at that and we just hope to find her when she has an open look.”
Michigan also has a matchup advantage down low. Last Sunday, the Hawkeyes managed to limit senior center Hallie Thome thanks to their own star center, Megan Gustafson. Ohio State has no such player. At 6-foot-5, Thome holds at least a two-inch height advantage over every player on the Buckeyes’ roster.
Ohio State isn’t a great defensive team either. The Buckeyes rank 163rd in the country when it comes to defensive rating, allowing 90.4 points per 100 possessions, according to HerHoopStats.com. The Wolverines, buoyed by two of the best offensive players in the conference in Flaherty and Thome, shouldn’t have trouble scoring. The question will be whether they can stop Ohio State on defense, particularly guard Kelsey Mitchell.
Mitchell, the Big Ten player of the year in 2017, hasn’t slowed down at all in her senior year. She’s averaging a cool 25.5 points and 4.5 assists per game on 45-percent shooting from the field and 39 percent from beyond the arc.
In her lone game against Michigan last year, Mitchell put up 26 points on 8-of-20 shooting from the field. Despite the Wolverines scoring 87 points in that game, they lost, thanks in large part to Mitchell.
“We just have to try to have as many bodies around her as possible at all times,” Barnes Arico said. “She’s such a tremendous scorer. You have to find her in transition, you have to pick her up and not back up early, early, early because she can shoot it from half-court in. And she’s such a great passer as well. So it’s gonna be a total team effort.”
In a big-picture sense, the outcome on Sunday is unlikely to affect Michigan in the long-term, other than perhaps from a seeding perspective. Unlike last season, the Wolverines look like a sure-fire tournament team. They’ve been in the top-25 since the season started and were projected as a five-seed in ESPN’s initial Bracketology earlier this week. It would take a monumentous collapse for Michigan not to relieve its agony in being left out of March Madness last year. A loss to the tenth-ranked team in the country doesn’t qualify as anything close to that.
However, a win would still mean everything. In addition to the obvious implications of beating the Buckeyes, it would give the Wolverines a victory over a top-10 team — an assurance of their ability and a shot across the bow to every other team in the Big Ten. Beating an arch-rival just days after Barnes Arico set the program’s all-time wins record would mark the best stretch of what has been the best season of her time in Ann Arbor.
If a win like that were ever to occur, there’s no better time than now.