SportsMonday Column: A mad start to Michigan’s March
March is just four days old. It has already been full of madness.
The Michigan women’s basketball, men’s basketball and hockey teams all played in the Big Ten Tournament over the weekend, and all three punched their tickets to the NCAA Tournament in the process.
In Indianapolis, the No. 6 seed women’s basketball team set out to correct course after a late slide characterized the end of its regular season. A 2-4 record in February wasn’t a good look for a Wolverine team once ranked as high as No. 13 in the Associated Press Top 25, even if one of those wins came against then-No. 13 Maryland.
In its first contest on Thursday, Michigan breezed past No. 11 seed Penn State to earn a 77-48 victory, as its star duo of senior guard Katelynn Flaherty and junior center Hallie Thome came within six points of outscoring the Nittany Lions on their own. Thome poured in a game-high 22 points and fell one rebound shy of a double-double, while Flaherty was right behind her with 21, including five triples.
But in the quarterfinal round Friday, even the trusted hands of Flaherty and Thome failed the Wolverines, as turnovers in transition on two consecutive possessions in the final 2:30 cost them dearly in a 61-54 loss to the third-seeded Cornhuskers.
Despite the disappointing tourney finish, with a 10-6 conference and 22-9 overall record, Michigan is still projected to be a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament according to ESPN’s most recent Bracketology report. After missing out on the Big Dance in infamous fashion a year ago, the Wolverines seem poised to return for the first time since coach Kim Barnes Arico’s debut season at the helm of the program in 2012-13.
Back in Ann Arbor, the hockey team hosted Wisconsin for a best-of-three series in the first round of its conference tournament. Michigan wouldn’t need all three games — though that was in question at certain points of Friday’s opening period.
Michigan scored first just 1:40 into the game, but the Badgers roared back with three consecutive goals, jumping out to a 3-1 lead and silencing the crowd at Yost Ice Arena. By the end of the period, though, the Wolverines would be back on top. With three straight goals of its own off the power play, Michigan took a 4-3 lead into the first intermission.
Senior forward Tony Calderone completed his hat trick to open the second period, but Wisconsin came up with a pair of power play goals as well to tie the game at five. It took a fourth goal from Calderone halfway through the third period to seal a 6-5 win.
There was less drama Saturday night, but no shortage of goals, as the two teams combined to find the back of the net another 11 times. It was the Badgers who opened the scoring and the Wolverines who answered back with three goals of their own this time around. But Wisconsin couldn’t match Michigan’s offensive firepower two nights in a row, and the Wolverines earned a 7-4 win to advance to a second-round matchup against No. 6 Ohio State next Saturday.
Perhaps more importantly, Michigan is sitting comfortably at No. 8 in the Pairwise rankings, which means a near-certain return to the NCAA Tournament in Mel Pearson’s first year as head coach after a disastrous 2016 season.
That brings us to New York City, the ‘Mecca of basketball’ and Michigan’s second consecutive Big Ten Tournament championship.
Four games in four days isn’t easy any way you slice it, but as far as luck of the draw is concerned, the fifth-seeded, 15th-ranked Wolverines weren’t dealt the easiest hand.
First up was Iowa, a team Michigan had swept but couldn’t afford to look past. Whether the Wolverines or the officials were more to blame, Thursday’s opening game did not bode well for their tournament chances. As foul trouble hindered all three captains, the Hawkeyes pushed Michigan to overtime, where the Wolverines finally pulled themselves together to take a 10-4 edge in the decisive period.
Then came Nebraska, which had embarrassed Michigan in a 20-point win in Lincoln. But Friday, the Wolverines gave the Cornhuskers a taste of their own medicine. Michigan went 11-for-13 from beyond the arc, and four players hit double figures en route to a nearly 20-point victory of its own.
After that, a date with No. 2 Michigan State awaited. The Wolverines had beaten the Spartans by 10 points at the Breslin Center in January, and Michigan State was eager for revenge. But Michigan was having none of it Saturday, riding a 49-point second-half outburst to another double-digit victory.
And finally, the Wolverines would have to play a championship game against the only team in the Big Ten they had yet to beat in No. 8 Purdue. And not only had they lost to the Boilermakers, they had lost to them twice. While Purdue was a top-five team in the country on both of those occasions, Michigan lost by just five points combined. Sunday, the Wolverines ran away from the Boilermakers — opening up a lead as large as 18 points late in the second half — and right to another Big Ten Tournament title.
Michigan may not have won the most games, but it certainly looks like the best team in the conference. Now, the Wolverines have the trophy to prove it. With another automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament, Michigan can make that point even stronger by outlasting its familiar foes in the Big Dance.
That makes three Wolverine teams all seemingly destined for NCAA Tournament runs.
Brace yourselves, Michigan fans. This could be a mad March.
Ashame can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @betelhem_ashame.