The Michigan women’s basketball team won its first two games of the season, just as it was supposed to do. It let George Mason hang around, but eventually put away the Patriots by 14. Two days later, the Wolverines dismantled Liberty, 74-50.
In No. 5 Louisville, its opponents in Thursday’s Preseason WNIT semifinals, Michigan gets its first real test.
The Cardinals made the Sweet 16 last season before falling to Baylor and don’t seem to have lost much. They’ve come out of the gate strong with a 3-0 start, including an overtime victory against No. 9 Ohio State in Columbus. Their other two opponents more closely resemble the Wolverines’ – Southeast Missouri State and Toledo were both stomped by Louisville.
Michigan may find itself especially stretched on defense. Senior guard Katelynn Flaherty has stepped into point guard on offense seamlessly, but she’s still adjusting on defense and the Cardinals won’t make it easy.
Asia Durr, their lead ball-handler, is a scorer perhaps on par with Flaherty herself. The junior guard is averaging 23 points per game on 48.9 percent shooting from the field. That includes a 47-point performance that pushed Louisville past Ohio State.
Offensively, Flaherty may have to carry a larger load than normal. That should be no trouble – she’s just nine points away from passing Diane Dietz as the program’s all-time leading scorer after all. Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico has also stressed that Flaherty gets more touches in practices.
“I think our team started to realize that they have to find her,” she told WTKA on Tuesday morning. “And that’s something, for some of our young kids especially, they’re coming from high school where they had the ball in their hands 95 percent of the time. Now you have a player like Katelynn Flaherty on your team where, ‘Oh my goodness, where is she? I have to find her, I have to locate her to try to get her touches.’”
If the Wolverines decide to slide Flaherty over to another player on defense, redshirt junior Arica Carter is a likely candidate. She’s less of a scorer than Durr, averaging just six points per game. That would likely mean sliding junior guard Nicole Munger onto Durr, which may be more palatable for Barnes Arico.
Freshman forward Hailey Brown will have a big role to play as well. The Cardinals start three guards — Jazmine Jones being the third — creating a potential matchup problem for Michigan, which starts Brown in its frontcourt alongside senior forward Jillian Dunston and junior center Hallie Thome. Though Louisville will have a speed advantage, Brown matches up well with Jones in terms of height and could snatch some rebounds away from the sophomore as well.
Brown’s play on the boards will become all the more vital if Thome gets into foul trouble. That was the case against Liberty, when Thome committed four fouls, and the Canadian freshman stepped up to the plate.
“If we lost Hallie Thome last year at any point, we were in a panic and we were like, ‘Oh my goodness, how are we gonna get through the next few minutes with Hallie on the bench?’” Barnes Arico told WTKA. “And now, Hallie was in foul trouble the whole game the other night and we were okay. It was the first time that we were ever okay with her not in the game.”
Against a team like Louisville, Thome getting into foul trouble would be a much bigger problem. The Cardinals have dominated the boards thus far this season. Over their first three games, Louisville has outrebounded opponents by 14, 18, and 30, respectively. The Wolverines are no slacks on the glass, but if Thome gets into foul trouble, things could get dicey.
The Cardinals are likely to be the toughest opponent Michigan faces until Ohio State – perhaps even all year. The Wolverines are unlikely to pick up a victory on the road, but this game will test their mettle and show us if this is really a contender.