For the Michigan women’s basketball team, this year’s Big Dance is a little different than last year’s.
Whereas last season the Wolverines owned a host seed in the NCAA Tournament, this year looks more like a business trip. Headed to Baton Rouge to take on No. 11 seed UNLV to open March Madness, No. 6 seed Michigan will look to string together victories the way it has all season.
To do that, it will rely on the three key players that have led the charge all season. The trio of graduate forward Emily Kiser, fifth-year wing Leigha Brown and sophomore guard Laila Phelia is the only group of three teammates each averaging at least 16 points per game.
“It’s not something that is ever really talked about,” Kiser said of the fact that the triumvirate is alone with that stat line. “I think for me personally, just having that confidence that you don’t have to come out and score however many points a game, because you have that trust in your teammates, and really anyone on any given night can come out and score.”
That balanced scoring will be necessary for the Wolverines, facing a 31-2 Rebels squad that hasn’t lost since the calendar flipped to 2023. The Mountain West champions are led by center Desi-Rae Young, who averages a double-double and imposes a strong inside presence. Despite a lack of familiarity with UNLV, Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico has noticed some similarities to a much more familiar face:
“If you watch them, they have a dynamic post player in Desi-Rae Young. She reminds me a little bit of Naz Hillmon, who was our All-American.” Barnes Arico said, drawing a parallel to the now-WNBA player who graduated after last season. “She’s strong, she’s physical, she rebounds, she scores, she defends. She can do everything for them.”
Much like Hillmon, taking Young completely out of the game is a near-impossible feat. So defeating the Rebels will likely require keeping Young’s impact to a minimum, and forcing UNLV to find offense elsewhere. The Rebels’ supporting cast is made up of a number of talented players, and they like to play inside-out. Limiting those first touches for Young inside could be the difference-maker in Friday’s game.
But all season long, opposing teams have thrown the kitchen sink at Young in an attempt to stop her and UNLV. From double-teams — and even triple-teams — to being fronted, Young has seen it all. And the other four Rebels on the court have been more than able to answer for it, winning in both close games and blow outs, and going undefeated in conference play — against teams familiar with UNLV’s game.
“This team knows how to win,” Rebels’ coach Lindy La Rocque said. “We have a great belief and trust in each other. When the game is close and tight, they don’t panic. They are really composed and poised, look at each other, look at me, ‘How are we going to win this game?’ Then they go out there and execute.
“I think that’s the biggest thing. They’ve got the experience. They’re winners. They know how to win and pull out some close games.”
Michigan also has experience in close games, too, ending up on both sides of the final score. Most recently, in the Big Ten Tournament, the Wolverines emerged with a two-point victory in their first game against Penn State, before falling to Ohio State the following day, again by two points.
That experience in tight games, the depth of a newly-healthy roster and a week of gameplanning will be critical for Michigan. The Wolverines feel prepared for the challenge that lies ahead, while acknowledging the threat UNLV poses. They hope to come out of the gates strong, applying immediate pressure on both ends of the floor.
“It’s kind of like a mentality, too,” Brown said. “We don’t want to come out soft and kind of let them do what they want to do. So just trying to take things away that — obviously we’ve been able to see over the last four days that — they want to do.”
The last thing Michigan wants to see is the film it has been studying play out Friday afternoon. But if the Wolverines can execute their gameplan, this business trip will turn into an extended stay.