It’s become Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico’s vision. An assertion that any team can make, but few can back up — to be the hardest working team in America.
Being the hardest working team in America is an arduous task. It’s a message, though, that the Wolverine’s have bought into. A message that players referenced at Michigan’s media day in October.
It’s easy to work hard in gritty games against opponents like Maryland and Baylor, where every possession could be the difference between a win or a loss. Games like the one on Thursday night — blowouts at home against inferior opponents — offer insight to the true character of a team.
And the Wolverines rose to the occasion each and every possession in their blowout win over Wisconsin.
“We had goals, in every quarter, to do certain things,” Barnes Arico said. “So even though the score said one thing, we weren’t playing the score. We were playing five minutes at a time to be the best Michigan team that we can be.”
Sophomore guard Elise Stuck demonstrated the focus, determination and grit that makes up the identity of this Michigan squad in her eight minutes of play against the Badgers.
Despite playing just 7.7 minutes a game in the Wolverines’ firmly-set rotation, she hasn’t sulked. Instead, Stuck provided consistent, reliable effort.
Up 31 in the third quarter, senior forward Naz Hillmon was at the free throw line. Her charity-stripe shot took a bounce off the rim towards the left-hand side of the court. Stuck stood ready, flinging her body towards the ball in an effort to keep it inbounds and give the Wolverines another chance on offense. She didn’t manage to maintain possession, but the effort spoke for itself.
Stuck forced a steal not even a minute later, scrambling across the floor to reach the loose ball. All while Michigan was up 29.
A 29 point lead, and Stuck sacrificed her body without relent.
A crucial part to the Wolverines’ success: that mindset is glaringly evident throughout their roster. From her leadership position, Hillmon exemplifies the work ethic that Barnes Arico values.
“I think we’re being led by great leaders, Naz being one of them,” sophomore forward Cameron Williams said. “They’re really establishing a culture every day, whether that’s in practice or in games. On and off the court we’re establishing that winning culture.”
Leading 66-32 early in the fourth quarter, Hillmon pulled in a defensive rebound and threw an outlet pass up to senior guard Danielle Rauch. Junior guard Maddie Nolan took off at full speed to the corner, and senior forward Emily Kiser turned to sprint full tilt toward the paint. Pushing the pace, the ball found senior wing Leigha Brown, who pulled up for an open mid-range jumper. The shot didn’t find the mark, but Hillmon stood waiting on the far side to collect the offensive rebound and put it back up for two points.
All five of Michigan’s starters played their role in that fast-break. They knew their role, and they did it fast — as effectively and as focused as they could. It didn’t matter that they were up by 34 points.
“We have to have that championship mindset,” Barnes Arico said. “So, it can’t always be about our opponent. It needs to be about us, and everyone in our program really buys into that. I think you saw that tonight.”
When the Wolverines faced off against the Badgers in December they won by 12 in Madison. The defensive focus and non-stop effort of Thursday’s 39-point massacre shows Michigan’s growth over the past month. A win against a 4-13 Wisconsin team is no Herculean task, but the hustle on display by the Wolverines against an inferior opponent could be a sign of the cohesiveness to come.