Barnes Arico's gnawing feeling persists as Michigan women take on Florida Gulf Coast

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Each time Michigan makes the NCAA Tournament, women’s head coach Kim Barnes Arico sees the bracket and her team’s first-round draw and immediately the angst sets in.

It doesn’t matter what year or what team, her reaction is consistent.

“You’re like, ‘Oh my gosh,’” Barnes Arico said, laughing during a Zoom with reporters on Saturday. “It doesn’t matter. You think you have the hardest opponent in the whole entire bracket. This year I feel that way again because we have a team that plays differently than anyone else.”

Michigan head coach Kim Barnes Arico shouts instructions to her team.

Michigan (14-5), a No. 6 seed, plays No. 11 Florida Gulf Coast (26-2) in a first-round game Sunday at 3 p.m. The winner advances to face the winner of No. 3 Tennessee (16-7) and No. 14 Middle Tennessee State (17-7).

Florida Gulf Coast has attempted 1,001 3-pointers this season to lead the nation. Behind the Eagles in most 3-point attempts is High Point at 796 and Central Michigan at 733. The Eagles have made 334.

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“They play different. It’s gonna be different,” said Barnes Arico, who has led the Wolverines to four NCAA Tournaments. “But our kids have been locked in at practice. They know they’re gonna continue to shoot 3s and they might take 40 of them in the game, but we really feel confident in our defense. We know we’re not gonna hold them to five, because that’s not how they play, but we have to do what we do, too. We have to rebound, we have to get to the free-throw line. We have to make them defend us.”

Defensive transition, she said, will be key.

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“Because they’re gonna try to get inside the paint and then kick out,” Barnes Arico said. “They don’t really shoot any mid-range shots. Everything is either a layup or a 3. The other thing is they have real great actions that they try to slip on or get layups if you over-extend yourself at the 3, so just contest shots, realize they’re gonna make a few, but rebound out of it. Don’t give them any second-chance opportunities because then they hold it too and they make you defend through their stuff, which is exhausting. So just making sure we limit them to one shot, contest shots, realize they’re gonna make them, but then play to our strengths as well.”

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Michigan junior Naz Hillmon, this week named an AP second-team All-American, leads the team averaging 25.1 points and 11.4 rebounds entering the game. Leigha Brown is averaging 16.9 points and Akienreh Johnson is averaging 10.8 points and 6.3 rebounds.

The Wolverines are coming off a quarterfinal loss to Northwestern in the Big Ten Tournament more than a week ago. Hillmon said the team had a strong week of practice.

“As much as that Northwestern game is still in our minds, we know and understand we’ve gotten better in this past week and chalk it up to, it’s on to the next,” Hillmon said. “The biggest and best thing about a loss is you can learn a lot about yourselves and you can have so many takeaways. That’s our biggest thing is moving on from that and knowing we got better this past week and really being excited to be here and to get back on the court.”

Florida Gulf Coast, the ASUN tournament champs, is making its seventh NCAA appearance in 10 years under coach Karl Smesko. The Eagles are led by Ohio State transfer Kierstan Bell, a three-time Ms. Ohio Basketball recipient. The 6-foot-1 guard leads the team in scoring, averaging 24 points, and rebounding with a 10.9 average, and also has taken the most 3-pointers, going 79-of-216. She is familiar to the Wolverines who twice played her last season when she was with OSU.

“I definitely think that it helps that our kids know her,” Barnes Arico said. “We actually have played against her and know the type of player she is and how she can impact the game. I think our kids have an appreciation for that and know she can score, she can pass, that we have to really establish ourselves defensively on her to set the tone for the game.”

Twitter: @chengelis