Every coach in the Big Ten will say any team is capable of beating any other on a given night. Because of this, not one game in the conference is a given. So when the Michigan women’s basketball team plays Penn State (1-4 Big Ten, 6-10 overall) in Happy Valley on Sunday, the Wolverines’ advantage on paper will have no bearing on the actual contest.
Though Michigan lost to No. 8 Maryland on Thursday, the Wolverines stuck with the Terrapins for most of the game. Maryland is a higher caliber team, but Michigan took that with a grain of salt, battling all game before running out of gas in the fourth quarter to lose by seven. With the Wolverines’ freshman center Hallie Thome and senior forward Kelsey Mitchell in foul trouble, the Terrapins used their size to outrebound Michigan, 43-28, en route to victory.
The Wolverines (2-3, 10-6) put up a better fight than expected. After an improbable comeback win against Iowa and a moral victory on Thursday, they’re riding some momentum into Sunday’s matchup.
“We’re getting better,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “We’re a challenge. I don’t think there’s any team in our conference that circles us on the schedule as a win.”
The Nittany Lions of late are not the women’s basketball power they used to be, but that doesn’t mean they should be taken lightly. Though they lost to Wisconsin by 20 and fell to Minnesota, the team Michigan defeated last Sunday, Penn State beat then-No. 14 Northwestern by five to open up Big Ten play.
The Nittany Lions boast three double-digit scorers in guards Teniya Page, Lindsey Spann and Brianna Banks. The freshman Page has scored in double figures in 13 of her 16 appearances this season. Penn State has fallen behind early in games, being outscored 297-232 in the first quarter, causing it to have to make up ground for the majority of the game. The Nittany Lions are also coming off a home-court five-point defeat to Nebraska.
Last year, Michigan blitzed through Penn State at Crisler Center, 89-53. But as the Wolverines know, last year’s results have no indication on the outcome of this season’s games. Last season, Michigan handled Eastern Michigan and Purdue with ease, but fell in heartbreaking fashion in both rematches last month.
For the Wolverines to avoid another setback, they’ll have to do what they did against Iowa — have multiple players score in bunches and stay out of foul trouble. Sophomore guard Katelynn Flaherty is 11th nationally in scoring with 22.1 points per game, but she cannot take on the scoring load by herself.
“(Down the stretch, if the Wolverines are down), she presses a little bit,” Barnes Arico said. “She tries to get her shot off real quick, and when she tries to release her shot real quick and doesn’t stay with it, she has a tendency to be short on it.”
Michigan will also have to make sure its bigs, Thome and Mitchell, protect the paint, but don’t foul. The Wolverines play much better with those two on the floor to establish an inside presence on offense and defense.
If Michigan can do that, a win is attainable. And the win would be even sweeter away from home for the program, because the Wolverines haven’t left Happy Valley victorious since 2001.
“Our young kids gotta get out there,” Barnes Arico said. “They gotta get those minutes, they gotta play the best in the country to take the next steps in their development.”