This year’s version of the Michigan women’s basketball team was said to be senior center Hallie Thome’s squad.
She — along with fellow senior Nicole Munger — was set to fill the void, both from a leadership and play perspective, left by the departures of Jillian Dunston and Katelynn Flaherty.
Through 10 games this season, it’s clear that both Thome and Munger have adapted to some of their newfound responsibilities. The Wolverines’ underclassmen — who make up a majority of the team — continually mention the guidance they’ve received from their two senior teammates.
Freshman forward Naz Hillmon, specifically, has benefited from Thome’s leadership.
“I have to give a lot of credit to her,” Hillmon said. “In the preseason, she definitely helped me a lot and has just given me a lot of tips and pointers of how to get in the paint, get those rebounds. So as much as we credit the guards, I’ve got to give some credit to Hallie.”
Added Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico: “I think all the upperclassmen have taken the freshmen under their wing and they’re just all terrific basketball players. I think for Naz, part of the reason she came to Michigan was to have an opportunity to play with Hallie Thome. So I think they love being on the court together.”
While the leadership has been there, Thome’s recent performances on the court have been lackluster. Over the first three games of the season — albeit against subpar competition — Thome averaged upwards of 21 points per game. Since then, she’s averaged just 9.4.
Thome’s unique size — 6-foot-5 — and dominant play at the end of last year garnered the attention of multiple WNBA scouts. So far, though, that dominant play has been infrequent.
Against Oakland last Sunday, Thome suffered from back spasms, which ultimately sidelined her for much of the game. With the contest well in hand, Thome played just 12 minutes and scored six points.
“She’s having some back spasms and she has had them in the past, sometimes in practice, and it takes a little time to get through them,” Barnes Arico said. “She usually is able to work them out, but today they weren’t calming down during the course of the game. So we decided it was best she just rest it.”
Though Thome has dealt with them before, back spasms are notoriously tricky to manage. It doesn’t help that she’s had to face consistent double-teams. In the North Carolina State game, Thome was forced to dish it out on numerous occasions to perimeter players like Munger, who ended up leading the team in scoring as a result.
Michigan would obviously miss its star player if she missed time due to injury. With that said, the team is well-equipped to compensate in the meantime.
Thome’s relative struggles have contributed to the Wolverines’ 7-3 record. But Hillmon’s development and the play of sophomore forward Hailey Brown have softened the blow.
“We are not the same team without Hallie Thome,” Barnes Arico said. “Her leadership today when she got hurt was still evident. So it’s nice to have people that can come in and give her a break or, when she’s not a hundred percent, take her minutes.
“Obviously you can see that today with Naz Hillmon. She did an outstanding job for us rebounding the ball, finishing the ball. Hailey Brown did a great job stepping up making some plays for us, as did (junior guard) Kayla Robbins. (Freshman forward) Emily Kiser gave us some good minutes there as well. But we still miss (Thome). We don’t ever want her not to be out there.”
Michigan also has a favorable schedule over the next few weeks — Morgan State and Southern will likely be put away with or without Thome.
But Big Ten play looms on the horizon, with the Wolverines traveling to Nebraska on Dec. 28. If Thome, healthy and rested, can regain her dominant form, the Wolverines project to be a force to be reckoned with in the conference.
“Hallie will be fine,” Munger said. “She had a really, really good workout. She knows what she needs to do so she’s gotten back in the gym to get her touch back. She’ll be fine.”