Throughout the WNIT, the Michigan women’s basketball team has gotten a lift from the support of its fans. Each of the team’s first four tournament games have been played at Crisler Center, and the Wolverines have won three of those games by 20 or more points.
Thursday, the Wolverines will take their high-powered offense on the road, looking to advance to the WNIT championship game with a win over Florida Gulf Coast (32-5). Michigan (22-13) reached the semifinals last year as well, but the Wolverines fell short, losing to UCLA, 69-65.
“We’re very well-rested compared to a lot of other teams,” Flaherty said. “We’ve (gotten) to stay at home. We’ve (gotten) to practice here. I think that’s a huge advantage. We have to bring our intensity there, our tenacity there.”
The game in Fort Myers, Fla., will be a battle of strengths. Michigan comes into the game averaging 79.1 points, while the Eagles limit their opponents to an average of just 49.1 points behind guard Whitney Knight’s 61 steals and 87 blocks on the season.
Offensively, Florida Gulf Coast is led by guards Kaneisha Atwater and Knight, who average 14.2 and 13.4 points per game, respectively.
Madison Ristovski, Katelynn Flaherty, Hallie Thome and Siera Thompson are all averaging double-digit scoring for the Wolverines this postseason, and teams haven’t had an answer for Michigan’s variety of scoring threats.
Despite its offensive success, Michigan may run into a matchup problem against the Eagles, who are 18-3 at home this season.
“They’re a great team at home,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico after Monday’s game. “They play five guards. It’s going to be really tough for (Thome) to play. But it was a similar matchup tonight. She had a really hard matchup. They shoot the 3 like crazy, so it’s a different kind of style.”
Though Knight is listed at 6-foot-3 and is the tallest player on the Florida Gulf Coast roster by four inches, she plays on the perimeter. Beyond Knight, the Eagles have no players taller than 5-foot-11. Thome would likely have an advantageous matchup on the offensive end and in the rebounding department, but she will struggle with the Eagles’ quickness when defending.
Thome heads into the semifinal contest just four points away from becoming the second freshman in program history to score 500 points in a season, and her performance will be a key for the Wolverines.
As for Florida Gulf Coast’s propensity for shooting 3-pointers, the team averages 31 attempts per game from beyond the arc, but averages slightly under 10 makes. Michigan, on the other hand, averages seven 3-pointers a game on just over 17 attempts.
Michigan is heading into Thursday’s game riding a wave of momentum off a come-from-behind victory over Temple in the WNIT quarterfinals. After falling behind by 15 in the first quarter, the Wolverines mounted a second-half push led by Ristovski and Flaherty and held on for the 77-76 win.
The tournament run for Florida Gulf Coast has also come entirely in front of a home crowd. The Eagles have won each of their four WNIT games by double digits, and took down Hofstra, 61-46, Monday in their quarterfinal matchup.
If Michigan wants a chance to finally bring a banner to Crisler Center, the road goes through hostile territory.