Ethan Sears: With road wins, Michigan all but seals tournament berth
Whatever validation the Michigan women’s basketball team needed, it got — and then some.
The Wolverines went on the road this week with March hanging in the balance. No. 19 Michigan (5-2 Big Ten, 16-4 overall) had no need to worry about the NCAA Tournament until recently. The Wolverines waltzed through their non-conference slate, the only slip-ups coming against Louisville and Notre Dame, two of the top five teams in the country.
Big Ten play started well enough — two easy wins with a loss at then-No. 23 Iowa sandwiched between them. But after dropping a close one to then-No. 10 Ohio State in Ann Arbor and narrowly escaping against unranked Indiana, a two-game road trip was the opposite of what Michigan needed.
Adding to the loss column against a formidable Nebraska team and the eighth-ranked Buckeyes would have put the Wolverines below .500 in the Big Ten. The margin for error would have been all but gone with just nine games left in the regular season. And, for a team that lost out on the Tournament last season after dropping three of their last four and exiting in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, familiar alarm bells would have rang through Crisler Center.
When Michigan boarded the plane to Lincoln last Friday, it was staring down the possibility of moving to the tournament bubble and going through the whole ordeal again.
Down three with eight seconds to go against the Cornhuskers, that possibility was inches away from becoming reality.
After a timeout, Michigan ran a pick-and-pop with senior guard Katelynn Flaherty and freshman forward Hailey Brown. Nebraska’s Jasmine Cincore got over the screen and nothing opened up. The ball found freshman guard Deja Church, who had no choice but to attempt a desperation 3-pointer as the clock reached its final second. She was fouled — a lifeline — and sunk all three free throws to tie it.
“I was almost in disbelief,” coach Kim Barnes Arico told WTKA. “I wasn’t sure that she would be able to do it. But you know what’s funny about her is that she made every big play — like she seems to have a knack.”
For the rest of the trip, the Wolverines never looked back.
Michigan ran away with the game in overtime, then went to Columbus and came back from a 10-point first-half deficit to beat Ohio State on its own court. It was only the fifth time the Wolverines have beaten a top-10 team in program history.
“We went right to a pick-and-roll option where we had a high blast to try to get Hallie (Thome) the ball inside, and we were able to do it the first couple possessions (of the second half),” Barnes Arico said. “Then they tried to pack it in the paint and once they did that, we were able to kick and find Katelynn.”
Thome and Flaherty finished as Michigan’s leading scorers, putting up 27 and 21 points, respectively, with 18 of Flaherty’s total coming in the second half as the Wolverines mounted their comeback and pulled away en route to an 84-75 win.
Instead of the bubble, Michigan returned to Ann Arbor with a tournament bid all but official.
Instead of a collapse, the Wolverines rose to the occasion.
With a signature win under their belt and the season's toughest road trip out of the way, the rest is simple: Hold the line and Michigan is in.