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Kim Barnes Arico talks tournament match-up with UNLV, health of Laila Phelia

The Wolverines play in Baton Rouge on Friday

Penn State v Michigan Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

The Michigan women’s basketball is going dancing this week, as they earned a 6-seed in the NCAA tournament. They’ll face 11-seeded UNLV in the first round, and the winner of that game will play the winner of 3-seeded LSU and 14-seeded Hawaii.

This is the 5th consecutive NCAA tournament the Wolverines have played in. Michigan has become a mainstay in March Madness, and head coach Kim Barnes Arico doesn’t take that for granted.

“Sometimes I have to reflect and remind myself that we weren’t always a team invited to the NCAA tournament,” Barnes Arico said. “It’s really a big deal, and the players in our program, I want them to have an opportunity to celebrate it. To get a 6-seed is great for us. Just excited about the opportunity to play on Friday.”

The Big Ten is well-represented in the tournament. Indiana earned a 1-seed, Maryland and Iowa earned 2-seeds, and Ohio State is a 3-seed. Purdue and Illinois will both be in the First Four as 11-seeds.

That conference is a gauntlet, and Barnes Arico is proud of the way the Big Ten is represented in this tournament. She also thinks Michigan would have gotten a higher seed if they stayed healthy.

“We’re right there, it gave me a little bit of a stomach ache knowing we’re inches away or a healthy team away from being right there, but that’s part of it,” Barnes Arico said. “I think it’s tremendous growth for our conference. I think our conference was the number one conference in the country this season, and hopefully, we’re going to show that to the world in the next couple weeks.”

Michigan was without point guard Leila Pheila for the stretch run of the season after injuring her left leg against Minnesota in late January. She’s Michigan’s second-leading scorer, averaging 16.9 points to go along with 3.9 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game.

Phelia is one of the main offensive catalysts for this team, and while she may not be 100% healthy, the Wolverines are going to need her to make a run.”

“She’s back, which is obviously life-changing and it was great to have her back in the Big Ten tournament,” Barnes Arico said. “She’s a work in progress, she’s still rehabbing every day, she’s practicing but I wouldn’t say she’s Laila pre-injury just yet. It’s certainly nice to have her back, she’s certainly a difference maker for us, and we’re excited as a program that she’s back out there.”

Michigan’s first-round match-up is against a red-hot UNLV team who has won 22 games in a row, winning the Mountain West in regular season play and winning the Mountain West tournament.

The Wolverines know that the Running Rebels are talented, and the preparations for them began late last night.

“I know that they had an unbelievable season,” Barnes Arico said. “They only have 2 losses on the year. I’m on the coaches poll so I get to vote every week, I get their updates on their scores every week and I’ve been following their team. I know they have a great coach...she’s done a tremendous job. In the last 15 minutes, I’ve been looking through all their box scores, going through their rosters, having some film downloaded. As soon as I finish with you guys, I will definitely start watching them. They have had a historic season for sure.”

On the ESPN broadcast of the bracket reveal, analysts said that this team was battle tested, and Barnes Arico agreed with that sentiment. While they’ve battled injuries late in the season, the Wolverines are ready to prove themselves.

“We’re a really good basketball team,” Barnes Arico said. “We were a team that was under the radar at the beginning of the year, no one expected that with Naz’s graduation. But then we went to some tournaments, we played on the road, we played at Miami, and we challenged ourselves against some really good teams. We got banged up, we didn’t finish the year exactly the way that we wanted but we weren’t 100 percent either. This gives us an opportunity these next few weeks to get back at it.”

Michigan plays UNLV on St. Patrick’s Day (Friday, March 17). Tip-off time has yet to be announced. If Michigan wins that game, they likely won’t be the higher seed again in this tournament, but they seem more than ready to be the underdog.

“Now’s our chance to be a cinderella,” Barnes Arico said. “Now’s our chance to continue to play.”