The Michigan women’s basketball team has reached the Sweet Sixteen of the Women’s National Invitational Tournament, but anything less than a championship will leave a bad taste in the Wolverines’ mouth.
On paper, Michigan (9-9 Big Ten, 19-13 overall) is talented enough to advance to the WNIT Final Four and possibly run the table to hang a banner in Crisler Center. But before they can start thinking about that, the Wolverines must get past San Diego on Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Crisler.
The Toreros (13-5 West Coast Conference, 25-7 overall) got to this point by defeating Michigan’s Big Ten foe Northwestern and IUPUI by four and 11, respectively. Against the Wildcats, San Diego had control for the most of the game even though they were away from home. The Toreros led by as much as 20 in the fourth quarter, but allowed Northwestern to cut the deficit to as little as two before pulling out a victory. After a tie ballgame at the half facing the Jaguars, San Diego pulled away and didn’t look back.
When the Wolverines traveled to Evanston to face the Wildcats, Michigan squeezed out a five-point victory. In that matchup, the Wolverines surrendered 23 turnovers that Northwestern turned into 30 points. If Michigan had taken better care of the ball, the margin of victory would have been much larger. Lately, the Wolverines have been valuing their possessions. After surrendering 16 turnovers in the first round of the WNIT against Wright State, Michigan had just seven turnovers in the next round against Bucknell. The Wolverines will have to be even more careful Tuesday night.
“San Diego is a real tough team, they’ve had a tremendous season,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico on her weekly radio appearance with WTKA. “They’re playing exceptionally well. They’ve been in the Midwest for the duration of the WNIT.
“They’re a great, great defensive team, and they’re gonna change the pressure on us. They’re really going to get up and force turnovers, they forced 25 turnovers the other night. They’re gonna be scrappy and all over the place.”
Along with cutting down on turnovers, the stellar play of junior guard Siera Thompson has also been a boost for the Wolverines. Thompson is known as a lockdown defender, guarding each team’s respective best player. But in the WNIT, Thompson has topped her career high in points in both games with 19 and 20, respectively.
Against the Toreros, Thompson will likely be given the task of defending guard Malina Hood, who averages 18.5 points per game. Malina’s twin sister, Maya, is second in scoring for San Diego with a 14.4 average. With the twins leading the way, the Toreros have lost all but one game by single digits.
San Diego is strong in guard presence, but lacks height, priming Michigan freshman center Hallie Thome to have another standout performance. Against Bucknell, Thome tallied 24 points and four blocks. With San Diego’s tallest player standing at 6-foot-2, Thome’s 6-foot-5 frame and shifty footwork could allow her to pad the stat sheet in the paint. Her scoring has been instrumental in the Wolverines’ 81- and 95-point displays so far in the WNIT.
“If we can continue to score like we have the last couple games, that’ll put us in great shape,” Barnes Arico said.
Michigan’s best seasons may lie in the future with younger players continuing to develop and another ranked recruiting class coming in next season, but the seniors are still the focus of this year’s Wolverines. They want to send guards Madison Ristovski and Halle Wangler and forward Kelsey Mitchell off with a WNIT championship.
It wouldn’t be as prestigious as the NCAA Tournament bid that Michigan wanted, but the WNIT is an opportunity to finish the season the way the Wolverines started it — with a win.