Michigan women familiar, confident ahead of NCAA tourney matchup against LSU

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

The Michigan women’s basketball team’s second-round NCAA Tournament game is against speedy, talented LSU, but there’s another layer with the two Kims coaching against each other – Michigan’s Kim Barnes Arico and LSU’s Kim Mulkey.

Sixth-seeded Michigan (23-9) will face host LSU (29-2), the No. 3 seed, in a second-round game Sunday at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center at 7:30 p.m. on ESPN. Both teams convincingly won their first-round games with LSU beating Hawaii, 73-50, and Michigan defeated UNLV, 71-59.

LSU head coach Kim Mulkey encourages the crowd during the second half of the team's first-round game against Hawaii.

This will be the third time in recent history that Mulkey and Barnes will coach against each other in the NCAA Tournament. Mulkey is in her second season with the Tigers, but while she was at Baylor, she faced Barnes Arico in 2018 and came away with an 80-58 second-round victory and won the memorable 78-75 overtime game in the 2021 Sweet 16.

“When I saw her (Thursday), the first thing she said is, ‘What (does) the NCAA have with us being in the same bracket all the time?” Barnes Arico said in a news conference.

Mulkey said the women are friends and embraced when they first saw each other that day.

“Do you realize they have put us together three of the last six NCAA Tournaments?” Mulkey said. “She looked at me and I looked at her and said, ‘What in the hell is the deal? Is it a 'Kim' thing?’ She goes, ‘I know it.' She's one of the good ones. Good coach. Good person. A good mother. Good wife. I hate that we have to play each other.”

But this isn’t about the two Kims, of course.

Michigan boasts three players scoring 16 points or more with Leigha Brown averaging 18.0, Laila Phelia 16.5 and Emily Kiser 16.3. This is a team with size that plays physical, and Barnes Arico said after the first-round win that the Wolverines are playing with a chip on their shoulders. Mulkey has noticed.

“I said this when the bracket came out, not that anybody cares, but Michigan is better than a 6-seed,” Mulkey said. “Just two or three weeks ago, if y'all kept up with it, I remember them being talked about as a host. Well, what happened? I don't know. They are that good.

“They average just about the same number of points in conference that we do. The same number of 3's. They shoot about the same number of 3's. They get to the foul line just about the same number we do. It's just going to be a very good matchup. The difference is we have maybe a little bit more speed, they have more height. What is it going to take? It's going to take just grinding. It's going to be two teams getting after it on both ends of the floor.”

LSU is looking for its first Sweet 16 appearance since 2014, and Michigan wants to make its third straight Sweet 16. The Wolverines last year made program history reaching the Elite 8.

The Wolverines are very familiar with LSU’s 6-foot-3 Angel Reese, a first-team AP and USBWA All-American, who spent two seasons at Maryland. Against Hawaii in the Tigers’ first-round game, Reese had 34 points, 15 rebounds, three steals and three blocks.

“She’s a really skilled player. Physical,” Kiser said of Reese. "Her length is insane when you watch her. And taking it coast to coast, with the dribble, that's something a little bit new. Definitely a difficult player and something we're trying to lock in.”

The Wolverines said going through the challenges of playing in the Big Ten has prepared them for the NCAA Tournament. With injury issues down the stretch, Michigan lost a few critical games and with that, the right to host first- and second-round tournament games. Then there was some talk UNLV would pull off the upset of the Wolverines in the first round.

That has shaped Michigan, which has made the NCAA Tournament the last five years, into a team with something to prove.

“We didn't have our total team down the stretch, so with everyone back, I think our players really have that confidence,” Barnes Arico said. “They also have that experience. I mean, we made that run last year to the Elite 8, the year before to the Sweet 16. That type of experience is something that a lot of programs don't have. I think that really helps us as well and it helps to give that confidence. Obviously led by Emily, Leigha, and Maddie (Nolan), who have been there before.

“So I like kind of the position that we're in in terms of we do have something to prove, and they're hungry and they don't want to go home and they have been on this stage before.”


Twitter.com: @chengelis