BATON ROUGE, La. — It’s a cool Saturday afternoon in Louisiana. The birds are chirping while the sun peeks briefly through gray clouds, providing relief from the uncharacteristic cold weather.
And inside the confines of Pete Maravich Assembly Center, the Michigan women’s basketball team is still dancing.
After defeating UNLV, 71-59, Friday, the No. 6 seed Wolverines will face No. 3 seed LSU on Sunday with a chance to advance to their third-straight Sweet Sixteen. But doing so will be no easy task.
The Tigers, led by head coach Kim Mulkey and sophomore forward Angel Reese, boast one of the most formidable units in the country and lost only one game in the entire regular season before falling to Tennessee in the SEC Tournament semifinals. In order to avoid a second-round exit tomorrow, Michigan will have to stymie LSU’s attack while avoiding the recurring mistakes that have plagued the Wolverines in recent bouts against top-ranked opponents.
Michigan has played LSU just once since Kim Barnes Arico took over as head coach in 2012 — a 64-62 loss in 2013 — but the Tigers feel like a familiar foe, in part because of Mulkey.
Before her tenure at LSU, Mulkey spent 21 seasons coaching Baylor. During that time, she knocked Michigan out of the NCAA Tournament twice: 2018 in the second round, and most recently in 2021’s Sweet Sixteen.
“We have played against her a number of times in the last five years,” Barnes Arico said following the NCAA Tournament Selection Show Sunday. “Someone must like the Kims together because they always have us in the same bracket as them. … I said to my husband that it feels like we spend every Easter holiday with Mulkey.”
This time around, the Wolverines will look to finally advance past a Mulkey-led team. But first and foremost, that means stopping Reese, LSU’s first-team All American who averages a whopping 23.4 points and 15.5 rebounds per game. Slowing her will be the challenge of the game for Michigan, who also faced off against Reese during her two seasons at the University of Maryland.
Reese played two seasons with the Terrapins before departing for Baton Rouge, but missed most of her freshman year due to injury. In a regular season matchup against Maryland last season, the Wolverines’ ability to shut down Reese paved the way to victory. While the goal of replicating that performance is a lofty one, it could be the deciding factor in tomorrow’s game.
For Michigan, leaving Baton Rouge victorious centers around strong performances from its own top players. Graduate forward Emily Kiser, who tied for the game-high with 18 points against the Rebels, will have to keep up with Reese on the interior. Against the smaller and quicker Tigers, the Wolverines’ size will be an advantage once again, but keeping pace might prove difficult.
“Their speed and athleticism is definitely going to be a challenge for us tomorrow,” Kiser said Saturday.
Big games from the Wolverines’ top scorers — including fifth-year wing Leigha Brown and senior guard Maddie Nolan — feel like a necessity in order to overcome that challenge and keep up with the high-scoring Tigers: LSU averages almost 84 points per game on the season, a mark that Michigan hasn’t reached since Jan. 7.
It’s a goal the Wolverines have been preparing for.
“There’s been a lot of energy and intensity here,” Brown told The Daily. “Especially the last four days we had to scout UNLV. Just being able to lock in and fine tune some things that we really weren’t able to lock in on during the regular season has been really important.”
In Friday’s game against the Rebels, Michigan appeared fine-tuned, but it will have another important element factoring into the contest on Sunday: the environment. The Tigers are playing on their home court, which packed in nearly 9,000 fans for their Friday win against No. 14 seed Hawaii.
Escaping that tough environment would mean a third consecutive Sweet Sixteen berth for the Wolverines. All that stands in the way is Mulkey, Reese and a speedy, high-scoring LSU.