Prior to this season, senior guard Nicole Munger and senior center Hallie Thome pondered expectations for what was to come.
“Nicole said at the end of the summer, ‘Coach, I think we have an opportunity to be Big Ten champs next year,’ ” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “And her and Hallie debated that and wavered that and went back and forth on that and they came to common ground that that’s gonna be our message for our team this season, and that’s gonna be our goal for our team this season. And they’ve kind of stuck with that.”
The Big Ten Tournament tips off in less than a week, but for now, the Michigan women’s basketball team (10-7 Big Ten, 19-10 overall) is putting those aspirations on standby. The final regular-season matchup — Sunday afternoon against Wisconsin (4-13, 13-16) — garners more attention.
“My focus is on Wisconsin,” Barnes Arico said. “We have a Big Ten tournament? When’s that?”
Though she was clearly joking, there’s truth underlying Barnes Arico’s comment.
The two teams will meet for their second time this season. The Wolverines won the first outing, 76-70, in Madison at the start of the month. They’ll look to replicate that result at Crisler this weekend.
Michigan started out slowly in that game, but solid performances by freshman forward Naz Hillmon and freshman guard Amy Dilk helped the team prevail. Hillmon led the team with 20 points and eight rebounds, shooting 8-of-9 from the field. Dilk helped generate much of that scoring, finishing with eight assists.
The roommates could potentially lead the team again. Hillmon has been top-notch recently. Since the previous meeting, she has averaged 16.3 points a night. In the past two games against Michigan State and Rutgers, she dropped 27 and 21 points, respectively.
“Naz has just been tremendous,” Barnes Arico said on Inside Michigan Basketball Radio Show. “And every now and again, she’ll have a freshman-like moment, but it doesn’t really last for too long. She’s just been a special player.”
Dilk suffered a right knee injury against Nebraska — immediately after facing the Badgers. She sat out the next three games before playing 16 minutes against the Scarlet Knights. And she tallied 29 minutes last Sunday against the Spartans.
“I think she’s getting close to 100 percent and we’re gonna need her down this tail stretch here,” Barnes Arico said.
The Wolverines are coming off a loss at Michigan State that snapped their seven-game win streak. Turnovers and fouls contributed to their downfall. Michigan lost the ball 25 times and gave the Spartans 27 free throw attempts — of which they made 23. With no midweek contest this week, the Wolverines have had time to fine-tune.
“We haven’t had a bye week all season,” Barnes Arico said on Tuesday. “So it’s great for us to work on things that Michigan needs to get better at and some of the things that we haven’t been successful at in the next couple days.”
Forwards Marsha Howard and Imani Lewis are Wisconsin’s top scorers, both averaging double digits. That said, the Badgers have struggled throughout the season with just two road wins. They’ve lost four of six since last playing Michigan and sit at second-to-last in the conference standings.
The Wolverines appear to be the clear favorite and should soon be able to take on their bigger desires.
“It’s just another opportunity for our team to go out there and show what we’ve been working on and how great we can be,” Munger said. “ … One more game and then we can focus on (the Big Ten Tournament).”