Siera Thompson is best known for knocking down 3-pointers and doling out assists, but it’s her defense that has been crucial to winning games.

The junior guard on the Michigan women’s basketball team has shut down opponents’ best players all season, and lately, she has begun to show how important that truly is.

Just two weeks ago, on Jan. 31, she forced Minnesota guard Rachel Banham to post a 1-for-10 effort from 3-point territory — Banham went on to tie the NCAA single-game scoring record with 60 points just a week later. And on Feb. 11, against Wisconsin, Thompson matched up with the Badgers’ best player, guard Nicole Bauman, and held her to just 10 points.

Thompson’s defensive skillset doesn’t come from a menacing height or long wingspan, but simply her effort and mindset, as Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico always says.

She has a meticulous eye for opponents’ tendencies and studies each with care leading up to games.

“It’s my job to get the energy going on defense to try and stop the opposing team’s best players,” Thompson said. “I take a lot of pride and try my hardest to do that.”

But Thompson hasn’t become the Wolverines’ top defender by practicing against the likes of sophomore guard Katelynn Flaherty — the most lethal scorer on the team (22.4 points per game, 2.4 assists). She has reached these heights by playing against the boys that Michigan scrimmages against in practices.

Thompson, at just 5-foot-7, doesn’t look as dangerous as some of Michigan’s other options, but the work she puts in against the “practice boys” makes her just as strong.

“Usually whoever is the best one, I’m guarding him,” Thompson said. “If you can guard the boys, you can guard almost anyone of our girls, because (the boys) are so athletic.”

Playing against boys is common practice for women’s teams around the NCAA, allowing teams to gain experience against players with different physical advantages than they would be able to find in a reserve team made up of girls.

“Defense — so much is effort, and so much is toughness,” Barnes Arico said. “(Thompson) has that probably more than anybody on our team. I wish that some of that defensive effort would rub off on everybody else.”

Michigan’s defense gives up an average of 70.5 points, the eighth-best in the Big Ten. Eighth out of a 14-team pool puts the Wolverines (7-7 Big Ten, 15-10 overall) in the middle of the pack, but it’s below the standard Michigan hopes to reach. 

Thompson, though, is setting the pace, and she has earned Barnes Arico’s full trust in that realm.

But while going head to head with the Badgers’ Bauman, Thompson recorded four personal fouls, one of the few times this season she has been in danger of fouling out.

It would have been far easier to just foul players like Bauman and Banham in pressure situations and force them to convert from the free-throw line, but Thompson is experienced enough — and Barnes Arico trusted her enough — to play smart without picking up a fifth foul.

“Some games you have to feel out the refs,” Thompson said. “Sometimes they call more fouls than other games. That’s something I have to adjust to.”

The Wolverines wouldn’t have been as successful on the offensive or defensive end if Thompson weren’t in the game. 

“She needed to stay in at that point,” Barnes Arico said.

Lately, her defensive presence has been matched with an equally strong stint on offense, too. In Michigan’s current three-game win streak, Thompson is pacing 13.3 points per contest. Stops on defense lead to transition scoring, and her team-high 34 steals continue to boost the Wolverines.

Thompson will face the challenge of stopping Shatori Walker-Kimbrough this week, in a rematch of the Jan. 14 close loss to then-No. 8 Maryland. The Terrapins’ guard is averaging 20.5 points through 14 Big Ten games.

Last time she met with Michigan, she put up 15. This time, both teams have more on the line. Thompson will have to do more to stop her, and Walker-Kimbrough will have to do more to score.

It’s just another opportunity for Thompson to pad her already impressive defensive resume.

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