The No. 16 Michigan women’s basketball team is cruising, and the road ahead looks clear.
Having pummeled Michigan State on Tuesday, 74-48, the Wolverines (7-2 Big Ten, 18-4 overall) are currently on a five-game winning streak that includes victories over then-No. 8 Ohio State in Columbus, as well as a monstrous, 44-point win against Illinois.
Michigan now ranks second in the Big Ten standings and is well on its way to qualifying for the NCAA Tournament. If there ever was a time for the Wolverines to take a breather and pat themselves on the back, it would be this weekend, heading into Sunday’s matchup against a bottom-feeding Northwestern team.
But that is not what Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico has planned for her team. She is already planning for the trip ahead as Michigan gets set to face the Wildcats (2-5, 9-12) Sunday afternoon in Evanston.
“We just have to be locked in, focused,” Barnes Arico told WTKA. “Every matchup in our league is a great matchup. You can’t go by anyone’s record.”
The Wildcats graduated star forward Nia Coffey from last year’s team that finished with a 20-11 record. With four new freshmen on the roster, they are much younger than before. But with youth comes growing pains, and these have been apparent. Northwestern has lost four of its last five games and sits at twelfth in the conference.
On top of the growing pains, captain Lydia Rohde’s injury midway through the season has also weakened the Wildcats. The senior guard is a gifted shooter and a key part of her team’s offense, shooting over 40 percent from beyond the arc. Rohde is one of the few veterans on a team filled with youngsters. Without her, Northwestern is without its leader.
The Wildcats also suffer from the absence of another talented guard. Junior Amber Jamison — who started in 11 contests her sophomore year — has taken a leave of absence this season, weakening Northwestern’s backcourt depth further.
With all the changes in the depth chart, others have had to step up. Unexpected contributions have come from freshman guard Lindsey Pulliam, sophomore forward Abi Scheid and junior forward Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah who lead the team in scoring, averaging 14.0, 12.9 and 10.6 points per game, respectively.
It is unlikely the Wildcats will be able to keep up with the Wolverines and 3-point markswoman Katelynn Flaherty. The senior guard averages 23.3 points per contest and has made tremendous improvements in running the point. Against the Spartans, Flaherty showed off her passing ability, racking up six assists and creating countless scoring chances for her team when she drew double teams.
Even if Northwestern finds a way to contain Flaherty, Michigan has no shortage of firepower. Junior center Hallie Thome and junior guard Nicole Munger continue to significantly contribute to the offense, and freshman forward Hailey Brown has also shown potential. And even if the Wildcats can stump Michigan’s offense, its stout defense — it allows just 60.1 points per game — has rescued the team before.
Given these circumstances, the Wolverines should have a fairly smooth ride against Northwestern, barring an unacceptable performance.
But Barnes Arico wants to make sure there are no bumps at all, and wants her team to stay focused.
“You just have to play the best Michigan basketball that we can play,” Barnes Arico said. “We wanna make sure that there is never a doubt moving forward that we are putting ourselves in a position to win a championship and be selected in the NCAA Tournament.”