Four games are left in the No. 20 Michigan women’s basketball team’s regular season, and it’s never looked better — literally.
It’s the first time under fifth-year coach Kim Barnes Arico and just the seventh time in school history that the Wolverines have won 10 games in Big Ten play — the record stands at 13 conference wins in the 1999-2000 season. Michigan (10-2 Big Ten, 21-5 overall) has also clinched a spot in both the USA Today Coaches Poll and the AP for the fourth time under Barnes Arico.
But the success puts a “target on their backs” according to the Wolverines, and pushes opponents to play their hardest.
“Everybody is bringing their best game to you, every night,” Barnes Arico said after a win against Iowa on Feb. 5. “So it’s incredibly difficult and we have some teams that are in the bottom of our league, but you go on their home court and you do life on the road in the Big Ten.
“That’s what happens when you’re a good team. People start coming for you. And now, Michigan is circled on everybody’s schedule as a good team, let’s knock them off. So I think we’re going to face everybody’s best game.”
The Wolverines have won six straight games, hold third place in the conference and are the only team in the Big Ten to shoot at least 40 percent from deep. The team is ranked first nationally in 3-point field goal percentage — shooting 40.8 percent — largely led by freshman guard Kysre Gondrezick, who ranks third in the nation with a 47.3 shooting percentage from behind the arc.
Barnes Arico has compared Gondrezick to both sophomore center Hallie Thome and junior guard Katelynn Flaherty, linking the athletes by their standout freshman performances. In some ways, though, Barnes Arico thinks being a freshman is the easiest year, despite the nerves from transitioning into college ball.
Players like Gondrezick — and junior guard Jillian Dunston — keep the game “loose” and others feed off that energy.
By the time players become a sophomore or junior, though — like Thome or Flaherty — opposing teams set up double teams to defend, making it harder to maneuver around the court. This is the situation Thome faced Sunday in the Wolverines’ 75-66 win against Wisconsin.
The first time the Badgers came to Crisler Center on Jan. 1, Thome broke away with a 37-point game. Yet, this past week, Thome managed just 13 points while Flaherty dominated the game with 35. Though Thome was still the second-highest scoring Wolverine on the day, Wisconsin knew to stop the 6-foot-5 center.
But what has pushed the Wolverines past the adversity directed at their top scorers is the ability of the team to look for assists and to depend on the depth of the bench.
“I think our team has gotten to the point where they have a great understanding of, ‘If we’re going to be a successful team, we have to have more than one or two people that can score,’ ” Barnes Arico said. “We also have to have the ability to pass the basketball. When you have someone like Katelynn Flaherty who can score the basketball as well as she does but (can also lead) our team in assists, that’s pretty special.”
Leading the team in assists is senior guard Siera Thompson, who has amassed 136 to date. The senior class is small, as it’s comprised of just guards Danielle Williams and Thompson. And the pressure to not only perform, but to also recognize their careers’ end, is taking its toll.
“(Thompson), who has been tremendous for us for four years, for the last few games has really struggled to make her shots,” Barnes Arico said. “She just looks like she presses a little bit and I tried to talk to her a little bit yesterday on our day off, and she said, ‘You know, Coach, there’s only (four) games left in my career in the regular season and I want to be at my best and I want to be perfect for the team.’ ”
But perfection may not be necessary, as the Wolverines seem to have the rest of the season firmly in check and are favored in the rest of their matchups against Indiana (7-5, 17-8), Michigan State (6-6, 16-9), Nebraska (1-11, 5-19) and Penn State (7-6, 17-8). If Michigan can keep afloat, it could be looking at its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 2012-13.
“The bigger picture is we just have to realize we’re being successful and keep doing what we’re doing,” Barnes Arico said. “Keep working extremely hard, keep practicing hard, but really try to enjoy the moment and really try to have some fun with it.
“It’s the end of the season, the final stretch. Let’s try to enjoy it as much as we can.”