Pittsburgh handed the Michigan women’s basketball team its first defeat of the 2014 season, and the Wolverines don’t want Thursday’s matchup to be a case of déjà vu.
Michigan (6-0), currently first in the Big Ten in scoring offense, will seek to avenge last year’s 21-point loss when it hosts the Panthers (4-2) in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
Through their opening six games, the Wolverines have yet to be in a close contest down the stretch, averaging a 34-point margin of victory.
Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico realizes some of her younger players may not be ready to play tight games in crunch time, with Thursday’s contest promising to be the closest yet. But Barnes Arico has liked how the softer schedule gave her freshmen and inexperienced players the opportunity to learn and gain confidence early in the season.
“For the young kids, this schedule has been perfect,” Barnes Arico said Sunday. “It’s given them the opportunity to gain some experience. There’s nothing like getting on a court and playing and getting that experience, so they’ve really valued getting some game time.”
Players like freshman center Hallie Thome and sophomore forward Jillian Dunston have greatly benefited from the six-game stretch. Thome is currently shooting 77 percent from the field — good for first in the nation — while Dunston is already grabbing six more rebounds per game compared to last season. They have started the past four games together for the Wolverines and have helped establish a strong post presence.
But the pair faces its most difficult matchup yet with Pitt’s physical forwards. Dunston will square off with forward Yacine Diop, who, despite being 5-foot-10, leads Pitt in rebounds, grabbing 6.7 per game.
Thome got her first look at taking on taller opponents against Oral Roberts and scored 14 points, including six in the first quarter.
The freshman will now match up with the Panthers’ 6-foot-2 forward Stasha Carey, a scrappy post anchor averaging 10 points and five rebounds through six games.
Pitt starts two forwards and a combo guard, a look Michigan has barely seen this season. The undersized Wolverines could have trouble with the big Panthers lineup, especially when Barnes Arico wants to play with four guards on the court to push the tempo.
Similar to Michigan, Pitt is a young team, with no seniors on its roster. But the Panthers have already gone through some growing pains, most notably losing to South Dakota State by one and Maryland by 21 in last week’s Paradise Jam Tournament in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Sophomore guard Aysia Bugg is one of the Panthers’ most experienced players and leads the team in assists. She helped lead Pitt to an NCAA Tournament appearance last season — starting 29 games — and is a scorer to keep an eye on. Bugg has shot 63 percent from behind the arc in six games.
The Wolverines hope to gain experience and confidence playing bigger and more physical teams when they take on the Panthers on Thursday. With fringe top-25 opponents in Princeton and UCLA on the horizon, Barnes Arico wants to see her team respond to adversity, but also take care of unfinished business against a familiar non-conference foe.