Ann Arbor — Michigan sixth-year head coach Kim Barnes Arico wants what Suzy Merchant has accomplished at Michigan State, winning a Big Ten regular-season championship, playing in Big Ten tournament title games.
Michigan looks well on its way to getting the job done if Tuesday night’s 74-48 victory over the Spartans is any indication.
Michigan senior guard Katelynn Flaherty, an All-American candidate and the nation’s sixth-leading scorer (23.3), netted 26 points to help the Wolverines end their four-game losing streak in the series, making it their first win over Michigan State since Feb. 5, 2015.
Flaherty made 9-of-14 shots from the field and 4-of-6 3-pointers while also contributing six assists. Junior guard Nicole Munger scored 13, 6-foot-1 freshman forward Hailey Brown, 10 and 6-5 junior center Hallie Thome, eight points and 11 rebounds for Michigan.
The No. 16 Wolverines (18-4, 7-2) are off to their best start in school history and have their highest ranking since Dec. 24, 2001. UM is second in the Big Ten, trailing only No. 14 Maryland (17-3, 6-1), a team the Spartans defeated earlier this month.
Michigan played like a top-20 power, using an early 10-0 run to take a 10-2 lead three minutes in, then extending the lead to 18-4 by knocking down 3-pointers, two coming from Flaherty and one each from Munger and Brown.
“They came out pretty aggressive, they’re a pretty tough team, especially physically and I think we executed really well at the beginning, came out pretty much on fire and I think that really helped our momentum,” Flaherty said.
“I think we’re just really playing great together as a team. Our chemistry is really building these past couple of games especially. A lot of people are stepping up. They (opponents) try to triangle and two and box and one us in previous games and it’s been tough for us, but now with everybody scoring the ball and playing together I think that’s really helped us.”
The Wolverines led 25-11 after one, 36-22 at halftime and 59-36 after three.
“I know Michigan State is not at full strength, but anytime we have an opportunity to be successful against our home state rivals it’s a great win for our program,” Barnes Arico said. “I’m proud of the way our kids came out, I’m proud of the toughness that they showed in the rebounding battle.
“I thought we executed and moved the basketball extremely well, found Katelynn early, found Nicole early and were really able to establish ourselves from the tip.”
Sure, the Spartans were playing short-handed with their starting backcourt — Taryn McCutcheon (concussion) and Shay Colley (knee) — out with injuries, but the Wolverines looked sharp from the opening tip, making shots and scoring off second chances as well while playing strong defense.
It was Michigan’s fifth straight win, including its signature victory coming against No. 8 Ohio State, 84-75, in Columbus last week. The Spartans (14-7, 4-4) have dropped four of their last seven.
“We were playing (6-4 power forward) Tara Reimer at the point and we have to start over completely, everything from transition defense, we can’t press, we lost our transition game on offense since we used to run people up and down, I mean it’s a challenge,” said Merchant of her injuries which include backup guards in Lexi Gussert and Mardrekia Cook.
“Now I have basically seven people and six are post players, so it’s a challenge.
“I remember last year Tori (Jankoska) was like torching them here, like put the team on her back and I felt Flaherty did that early in the game for them and that’s what you’ve got to do when you’re a senior, sort of set the tone and they did that. I thought Flaherty did a great job. She was efficient. If she gets an open look, it’s down. I have a great deal of respect for her.”
The Spartans cut the deficit to 10 (41-31) midway through the third quarter, but the Wolverines went on a 15-0 run with Flaherty leading the charge with nine points, and ending it with consecutive transition baskets to open a 56-31 cushion with 2:41 left in the quarter.
“Transition is a large part of our game,” Barnes Arico said. “We work on it every single day. We try to get our kids out and running. I thought we wore them down a little bit and part of the reason was because they were sending five to the glass, but we still had to come up with those rebounds and Hallie Thome was just tremendous for us.”
The Wolverines ran the Spartans out of the Crisler Center. At the time of their 25-point third-quarter lead the Wolverines shot 50 percent from the field and 54 percent (8-of-14) from deep range.
Freshman forward Sidney Cooks scored 17 for the Spartans who scored a season-low while shooting 31.7 percent from the field and making 6-of-21 3-pointers.