In Northwestern, Michigan also faces its own history
The Michigan women’s basketball team’s fate was set in stone with four games left in the 2016-17 season. At 21-5 with a 10-2 Big Ten record, the Wolverines were set to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013. Anything less than collapse would guarantee as much.
The Wolverines dropped three of their last four games in the regular season, then quietly bowed out of the Big Ten Tournament with a loss to Michigan State. They were left out of the NCAA Tournament to their own surprise — a decision coach Kim Barnes Arico recently referred to as a robbery — but Michigan brought that fate unto itself.
This season, there should be no such ambiguity heading into Selection Sunday. The Wolverines were ranked as high as 13th in the AP poll last week with a not-insignificant chance to win the Big Ten’s regular season title. They were cruising to a 20-point win over Purdue on Thursday that would have put their record at 20-4 and further solidified a tournament bid.
Then the Boilermakers scored the last 16 points of regulation to tie it, going on to eke out an overtime win. Michigan followed that up with a loss at Rutgers on Sunday. Now, with four games to go, the 21st-ranked Wolverines are 19-6, with an 8-4 conference record — an uncomfortably familiar position for a program well-acquainted with heartbreak.
“(The Purdue game) was probably the first time all year where we kind of looked a little scared,” Barnes Arico told WTKA on Tuesday. “And (we) looked different than we had prior to any other games during the year. Almost ... afraid to lose.”
Thursday’s contest against Northwestern will be a watershed moment for this team. It’s a game Michigan should win — the Wolverines beat the Wildcats 80-59 at Evanston Township High School just over 10 days ago. Northwestern sits near the bottom of the Big Ten with a 2-8 conference record and has a negative scoring margin.
In the first meeting between the two, senior guard Katelynn Flaherty and junior center Hallie Thome combined for 52 points, nearly outscoring the Wildcats all by themselves and handily outdueling Abi Scheid and Lindsey Pulliam, their two leading scorers. Though Northwestern’s leading rebounder, Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah, put up a double-double, Michigan outrebounded the Wildcats by 11. Moreover, the Wolverines pulled down 47 percent of offensive rebounds — above their 42.4-percent season average. The result was never in doubt.
On paper, this game is not close either. Northwestern hasn’t magicked itself into a good team in the past two weeks, losing its only game since playing Michigan. Playing on the road is tougher than playing at home. The Wolverines beat the Wildcats by 21 in Evanston. It’s not hard to do the math and figure out Michigan is the favorite on Thursday.
And yet, last season looms. Though the Wolverines have been fairly secure in a potential bid throughout the year, their record is worse than it was at this time in 2017. That's in part due to two losses against top-three teams early in the season, but a similar end to the season may bring a similar fate nonetheless.
“We learned after the Purdue game when we were up big, we can never relax,” Barnes Arico said. “You can never take your foot off the gas. You have to play for the entire 40 minutes and anybody in our league — I mean, Northwestern’s coming off a tough loss at Indiana in overtime. So they’re a team that’s playing well, that’s desperate for a win. So everyone is gonna come in here looking to knock us off.”
This is as close to a must-win game as Michigan has had all year. The margin for error has evaporated in the last week — it’s now or never.
“It’s important for us to just remain positive, take a deep breath, it’s gonna be ok,” Barnes Arico said. “Let’s get back to work, let’s get back to the grind, and let’s figure out how to get better because there’s a lot of season left to be played.”