The Michigan women’s basketball team has two games left to prove itself and climb the Big Ten standings.
After a bumpy start to the conference schedule, the Wolverines (8-8 Big Ten, 16-11 overall) have won four of their last five games, which has them tied with Purdue and Nebraska at the No. 6 spot in the Big Ten.
Coming off a 79-73 win against Penn State last weekend, Michigan heads to Northwestern (4-12, 15-13) on Tuesday.
“(Beating Penn State) was good,” sophomore guard Katelynn Flaherty said after the Wolverines’ win Saturday. “It just gives us confidence. It’s a big win today. They just beat Northwestern. They beat Michigan State. It’s going to give us momentum going into the last two games.”
Michigan will meet forward Nia Coffey against the Wildcats — a 2014 second-team All-Big Ten selection.
Coffey averages a double-double with 19.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game.
She is by no means Northwestern’s only option, though. Five Wildcats average double digits — guard Maggie Lyon is the next highest with 17.0 points, and guard Christen Inman follows her with 14.4. Forward Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah and guard Ashley Deary also average 13.0 and 12.6, respectively.
Under the basket, Coffey will be met by Michigan freshman Hallie Thome. While Thome will have the height advantage — she is 6-foot-5 — there have been times this season when more experienced, veteran players have outmuscled the Wolverine freshman.
Coffey could pose a similar threat in the post.
Out on the wings, Michigan will likely have the advantage. The Wolverines’ offense is led by Flaherty, whose 22.5 points per game is the seventh highest in the nation and third highest in the Big Ten. Flaherty, senior guard Madison Ristovski and junior guard Siera Thompson have combined to shoot 39.2 percent on 3-pointers this year — 7-percent higher than Northwestern’s three starting guards. But the Wolverines’ backcourt does more than just drain 3-pointers.
While Flaherty leads the offense, Thompson captains the defensive efforts with a team-high 37 steals.
The game prompts a handful of notable one-on-one matchups — including Flaherty against Lyon and Thome against Coffey — and despite the Wildcats’ lowly ranking, they boast the talent to give the Wolverines a hard time.
Northwestern has taken top Big Ten opponents to the wire this year, beating No. 5 Ohio State by four points the first time they met, and losing by just six in the second meeting.
While the frontloaded schedule put Michigan in a rut through most of January, the Wolverines have taken advantage of their weaker opponents to earn a higher Big Ten Tournament seed.
Moving up in the standings won’t be easy, though, as the five middle teams in the Big Ten — Iowa, Rutgers, Purdue, Michigan and Nebraska — are jammed into a race for seedings. Both the Hawkeyes and Scarlet Knights have 7-9 conference records, putting them both only a game behind the three-way tie in the No. 6 spot.
Tuesday’s game against the Wildcats, Michigan’s only scheduled meeting with them this season, gives the Wolverines the chance to move above .500 in conference play for the first time.
It’s also a big occasion for Ristovski (6.9 points, 2.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists), who has started all but two games this season.
She will likely start Tuesday, but if the senior simply makes an appearance, she will tie former Wolverine Jenny Ryan for second in all-time games played in program history. It will be Ristovski’s 130th appearance.
Back when Barnes Arico was hired by Michigan in 2012, her first phone call was to Ristovski, then an incoming freshman.
“She knew more about the program than I did,” Barnes Arico said at Senior Day on Saturday. “(Ristovski) helped me through my transition process.”
Barnes Arico has trusted Ristovski for the past four years, and Tuesday against the Wildcats, she’ll put the ball in her hands once again as the Wolverines look to close out the regular season strong.