Feb. 19, 2017
By Steve Kornacki
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The University of Michigan women's basketball team has a new challenge.
It had been climbing steadily all season long, reaching the Associated Press rankings and getting all the way up to No. 20 earlier this week.
However, immediately after becoming one of the teams to beat, the Wolverines have lost back-to-back games for the first time, dropping to 21-7 overall and 10-4 in the Big Ten. They were beaten convincingly both Thursday (Feb. 16) at Indiana and again Sunday (Feb. 19) by Michigan State, 86-68, before a record crowd of 12,707 that more than doubled the largest previous attendance for the program at Crisler Center.
Michigan didn't step up to win with a target on its back in either game, and it was unable to fend off two scrappy teams fighting for a chance to reach the NCAA Tournament.
So, the challenge now becomes bouncing back and playing the way it did to get to third place in the conference while reaching the polls.
Opponents coming at the Wolverines because they were a ranked team and hadn't lost in 13 previous home games brought about "uncharted territory," according to coach Kim Barnes Arico. She said "the amount of pressure that they are putting on themselves is incredible," and so she feels a need "to lighten the mood" to get them to "embrace and enjoy the moment" at hand.
Still, before working on mindsets, breaking down game film and returning to practice, Barnes Arico saw something to take pride in Sunday.
"That was, other than when my (St. John's) teams played at Connecticut, that was probably the best atmosphere I've ever been a part of," she said. "So, if I could just thank the Michigan fans and the crowd today, it was incredible. And I'm so happy our seniors (Siera Thompson and Danielle Williams) got to be a part of that because of what they've meant to our program.
"That was an unbelievable, incredible atmosphere, and obviously wasn't the outcome we wanted, but in my first year here (2012-13) we had a great crowd and it was mostly green, which was horrible. So, today, it was mostly maize and blue, and it was unbelievable."
Nicole Munger, who provided 12 points, five rebounds and plenty of spark off the bench, said, "The crowd today was amazing. ... It was crazy the amount of people, and we just fed off of them. It was sad that we couldn't come away with the win, but Michigan State played a very good game."
The program-record home crowd at Crisler Center
Wolverines center Hallie Thome added, "There was so much excitement building up to this and handing out fliers for the game at the Diag. And it really hit us when we were doing introductions, and it got dark and everybody put on the glow (sticks). It was a great experience for us to have that with the fans, and having them be like our sixth man kept us going.
"We didn't get the outcome we wanted, but it was definitely good to have their support, and we're looking to get it back and get the W's coming back in this upcoming week and our last week."
Nebraska visits Thursday night (Feb. 23) before the Wolverines travel Sunday (Feb. 26) to Penn State to close out the regular season.
"Coach told us at the end of the game that we just need to eliminate our distractions and to buy in to the Michigan program and 'the hardest-working team in America' (mantra). We're ready to take on the challenge, and we're going to meet it head on and not worry about what's happened in the past. We've just got to learn from the last two games, keep moving forward, and hopefully it will work to our advantage for the rest of the week."
What might have distracted the team?
"We sometimes get into ourselves and need to put the team first," said Thome. "If we're not making a shot or we get scored on, we've just got to forget about it and figure out a way to get back into playing Michigan basketball."
Barnes Arico noted: "Let's eliminate all distractions."
The major difference in Sunday's game was three-point shooting. The Spartans, led by Tori Jankoska with 28 points, made 10 of 20 from behind the arc. The Wolverines, with the normally dynamic Katelynn Flaherty scoring a season-low four points, made just three of 17 three-point attempts (.176) and missed all seven in the second half.
"The quote that always comes back is that 'you live and die by the three,'" said Munger, who was a solid two-for-five on treys. "But we're trying not to live and die by the three because we have an inside presence with Hallie. But we were too quick with it."
Barnes Arico said treys were taken too quickly and ball movement to get the best shot possible was generally lacking. She also noted that teams now have her players' shooting tendencies thoroughly scouted and that Flaherty and others didn't get many clear shots.
So, there are plenty of teaching points and room to improve for a team that now faces that different challenge of proving they are actually as good as they appeared before this week.
"It's going to be a big week for us," said Munger. "We can learn and get better from the State game. We can't pout over it, and we have to get back to work. We have one week left in the season and then the Big Ten Tournament.
"We just need to get back to what we were doing, and we're not afraid of hard work."
Coaches know they have the full attention of players after consecutive defeats.
"We're going to focus on what got us to this point," said Barnes Arico. "I do think we've got their attention now, and it will be learning from the film. I told Katelynn after the game, 'You're going to be OK. It's going to be all right. It's one game.'"
Flaherty was called for traveling four times and brought that up to her coach afterward. Barnes Arico noted that the coaching staff was breaking down game film and would help her address the problem on Monday.
"Now we're going to have their attention," Barnes Arico said. "We're going to be sharp and crisp, and I think practices will definitely be on point. But we can't lose the aspect of having fun with it. If we just go to work right now, they're going to miserable.
"They've got to know that they're working for something. ...(Yet) let's go back to when basketball was fun and enjoyable."