The No. 21 Michigan women’s basketball team’s double-digit loss at Indiana on Thursday was a significant reality check for a team that, up to that point, had been been on a roll in conference play. But fortunately for the Wolverines, their next game will provide them with a strong opportunity to make that loss a distant memory.
On Sunday, Michigan (10-3 Big Ten, 21-6 overall) will take on a reeling Michigan State team at Crisler Center with the backdrop of a concerted effort to break the attendance record, setting the stage for a matchup of unparalleled intensity between the in-state rivals. The last time the two teams faced off was last season, when the then-17th-ranked Spartans embarrassed the Wolverines, 85-64, in East Lansing.
This year, with the game in Ann Arbor and the graduation of Michigan State star forward Aerial Powers, the landscape of the contest suggests a flipped script. While still posting above-average numbers for both scoring offense (72.8 points per game) and defense (65.4), the Spartans — unlike Michigan, who has its best-ever conference record — have struggled to maintain those figures in Big Ten play, dropping five of their past nine games.
“Our team has such a better feel of “Okay, if someone’s hot, I need to set them a screen, I need to get them the ball, I need to find them in transition,’ ” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico on WTKA. “I think we’ve really bought into that philosophy and put our statistics to the side, and that’s why we’ve been so successful.”
Michigan State (7-6, 17-9) is anchored by forward Tori Jankoska — one of the nation’s most prolific scorers — who is averaging 22.1 points per game. Though the Wolverines, of course, will be looking to stymie her production, they will also have their work cut out for them to stop Branndais Agee. The guard has emerged as another offensive weapon for the Spartans, scoring double figures in six of her last seven games.
Michigan has seen its fair share of elite scorers this season, but its Achilles’ heel has been rebounding on both ends of the floor, which could spell trouble against Michigan State. Jankoska and Agee also lead their team in rebounding — both top-15 in the Big Ten — and the Spartans are 53rd in the country in boards per game. The Wolverines, on the other hand, are 151st. In other words, sophomore center Hallie Thome will be relied upon on heavily to stay out of foul trouble and spearhead Michigan’s rebounding efforts.
But there is one thing that the Wolverines have that Michigan State does not: depth. On any given night, freshman guard Kysre Gondrezick, junior guard Katelynn Flaherty or sophomore guard Nicole Munger have all shown the ability to stuff the stat sheet with their unerring 3-point shooting. The same can be said about Michigan’s passing, typically highlighted by the craftiness of Gondrezick and senior guard Siera Thompson.
“Our team has gotten to the point where we’re understanding if we’re gonna be a successful team, we have to have more than one or two people that can score,” Barnes Arico said. “… When you have someone like Katelynn Flaherty who can score the basketball as well as she does but leads our team in assists, that’s pretty special.”
Win or lose, the Wolverines are still in a comfortable position to secure third place in the Big Ten and a spot in the NCAA Tournament, but a win over their rival Spartans would surely be another bullet point on Michigan’s already-impressive resume.