The Michigan women’s basketball team has hit its stride in Big Ten play, but a daunting obstacle stands in the way as it looks to upset No. 3 Maryland on Thursday.
The third-ranked Terrapins’ (5-0 Big Ten, 17-1 overall) only loss this season came at the hand of No. 1 Connecticut on Dec. 29, narrowly falling, 87-81.
The last time the Wolverines (4-1, 15-4) met Maryland was last season, when the sixth-ranked Terrapins ran away with a 20-point win in College Park. But with new offensive weapons along with momentum, Michigan knows it just has to stick to its gameplan.
“We’re very excited to play a great team like Maryland,” said senior guard Siera Thompson. “We come in that game like we come into every game: Preparing, scouting, learning their tendencies and just trying to stop their great players.”
For Michigan to remain competitive against such an elite team, it will have to match the success of its two previous matchups against Indiana and Minnesota, with four players scoring into the double-digits. The Wolverines are thriving with their current offensive balance, as they came in ranked 29th in this week's AP poll.
In other words, Michigan needs its stars to play to their potential — especially Hallie Thome, who is coming off a commanding 20-point, 17-rebound game against the Golden Gophers.
The sophomore center will have the toughest matchup of the game, battling against Maryland center Brionna Jones. While Thome has a height advantage, Jones has been dominant in the post, averaging 19.5 points and 10.4 rebounds. Jones’ performance has earned her three Big Ten Player of the Week honors this year and most recently, the ESPNW National Player of the Week.
“They rebound the ball well,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “… I think it’s going to be key for us to hold them to one shot, to be able to defend (Brionna Jones), and rebound with them.”
The Wolverines will have their hands full if Jones controls the paint or if Thome gets into early foul trouble, and will have to rely more heavily on outside shooting. Michigan, though, has no shortage of prolific shooters. Junior guard Katelynn Flaherty and freshman guard Kysre Gondrezick have spearheaded a productive offense that owns the second-best 3-point field goal percentage in the country.
“As long as we scout them and know their tendencies I think we’ve got a good shot at them,” Flaherty said after Sunday’s game against Minnesota. “If we played like we did in the first half (against Minnesota), then we a have shot to play with anyone in the country.”
Unfortunately for the Wolverines, the Terrapins also have a slew of effective scorers that have wreaked havoc on opposing defenses this season. Guards Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Destiny Slocum have been a dynamic one-two punch from the perimeter, collectively knocking down over 40 percent of their 3-pointers. As a do-it-all 5-foot-11 guard, Walker-Kimbrough will also pose a matchup problem for junior forward Jillian Dunston if she can’t stay out of foul trouble.
An upset over Maryland would surely be one of Michigan’s biggest wins in program history, especially for a team that has done everything right thus far in hopes to snap its three-year NCAA Tournament drought. But few teams have been able to muster any success against the Terrapins, and a loss would barely be a setback on the Wolverines’ tournament resume.
The same can’t be said about Michigan’s contest Sunday against Nebraska (1-5, 5-13). Barring extreme circumstances, the Wolverines should be able to top the Cornhuskers with ease. Nebraska is tied with Wisconsin for the worst Big Ten record overall and has lost its conference matchups by an average of 14.5 points.
The lone bright spot for the Cornhuskers has been their low-post presence, led by 6-foot-4 forward Jessica Shepherd. Shepherd is the only double-digit scorer on the team, averaging a double-double with 18.6 points and 10.3 boards.
Similar to the matchup with Maryland, Thome will be the busiest Wolverine on the court, as it will be her responsibility to keep Shepherd in check. But given Thome’s current dominance in Big Ten play, the matchup will definitely be one to keep an eye on.
“As long as (Thome) is in the game, she’ll do great things for us,” Flaherty said. “She opens up the court for our guards (and) she’s very much improved on her rebounding game.”
Regardless of what happens in the paint, the Wolverines are simply more talented on both sides of the basketball and should leave Lincoln with one more tally in the win column.