Four years later: The legacy of Hallie Thome and Nicole Munger

Wednesday, April 10, 2019 - 10:24pm

Center Hallie Thome and guard Nicole Munger embrace during a game for the Michigan women's basketball team.

Center Hallie Thome and guard Nicole Munger embrace during a game for the Michigan women's basketball team. Buy this photo
File Photo/Daily

Legacy. What is a legacy?

This question, made famous by the hit Broadway musical Hamilton, is one that is often asked in sports — particularly, it is posed in collegiate sports. 

A little over a year ago, the Michigan women’s basketball team’s all-time leading scorer, Katelynn Flaherty, concluded her senior campaign in Waco, Texas following a second round NCAA Tournament defeat to Baylor. Once Flaherty’s career as a Wolverine ended, two questions followed: What is her Michigan legacy, and what is next for the program?

Now, one year later, those questions are beginning to get answered following another second-round appearance and the emergence of a freshmen class with astronomically high potential. 

However, with the impending graduation of the Wolverines’ two co-captains, seniors Hallie Thome and Nicole Munger — two other program legends who played alongside Flaherty the prior three seasons —the same questions are, once again, arising. 

To find those answers now, one could take a look at stats: Thome is the program’s second all-time leading scorer, and Munger accumulated more than 1,000 points after starting just her final two seasons. Together, the duo led Michigan to its first ever back-to-back second round Tournament appearances and they brought home the program’s first banner in the form of a WNIT championship.

But, to really understand the lasting impact of Thome and Munger and what could happen to the program upon their departures, one must look back to 2014. 

***

From the time Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico began recruiting Munger and Thome, she knew they were going to be special.  

“They were great and expected excellence in everything that they did,” Barnes Arico said. “That’s what Michigan stands for. So we knew that when they came here they were different. Different kinds of kids with different kinds of expectations. And they wanted greatness.” 

Before convincing either player to come to Michigan, though, Barnes Arico had her work cut out for her. 

For Munger, a kid from the small Philadelphia suburb of Doylestown, Penn., the idea of playing at Michigan, far from her home, was tough. 

“I was always a home body growing up. Always,” Munger said. “Sleepovers I wouldn’t do, so I was always like, ‘I’m going to school in Philly.’ ” 

But, eventually, Munger ended up getting over her early fears and committed to play for the Wolverines. 

“I knew that Michigan was a place that I could never pass up,” Munger said. “I mean I walked on campus and just got the chills for the first time. And it was just the place that I wanted to be. … It’s just a place that I couldn’t have said no to.”

While the Wolverines weren’t necessarily on Munger’s mind until the recruitment process began, for Thome, it was a completely different story.

Thome is from the suburbs of Cleveland, just a three-hour drive away from Ann Arbor. She’s wanted to come to Michigan for multiple reasons ever since she was in seventh grade. And while, at first, she wasn’t positive Michigan was the place for her, after talking with her AAU coach, a friend of Barnes Arico, she came around. 

“Being able to perform athletically and academically at the highest level, you can’t really pick any place better than Michigan,” Thome said. 

***

Once they arrived on campus, the two roomed together and quickly became friends. 

They did everything together, like go to California Pizza Kitchen at the Briarwood Mall and befriend the owners. 

The only time the pair really weren’t connected at the hip was on the court during game time. 

“I thought I would start, maybe,” Thome said. “And then if I started I would play a few minutes and that would probably be it.” 

Thome ended up starting every game their freshmen season and averaged about 25 minutes per game. Munger, on the other hand, was put into a much more minimal role, starting only once and averaging just over 12 minutes per game.

Even though Munger did not play as much as she may have liked, Barnes Arico still holds that she was beloved by all.

“She was a fan favorite from the first time we put her in a game her freshman year and she was the front of the press,” Barnes Arico said. “And you wonder who was up there in the front (of the press) before (freshman forward) Naz (Hillmon)? It was Nicole.” 

Their freshmen year ultimately concluded in a loss in the semifinals of the WNIT. 

The next year, with both playing in bigger roles, the Wolverines yet again failed to qualify for the Big Dance and instead again went to the WNIT, despite a 28-9 record and a third-place finish in the Big Ten.

This time, though, they helped Michigan win it.

“We hung the first banner, so it’s definitely an accomplishment,” Thome said. “And I remember coach saying the freshmen, at that time, went up to her and said, ‘We’re going to hang another one.’ ”

That championship came directly in the middle of Munger and Thome’s stay in Ann Arbor — and also helped create a shift in program expectations. 

“The (culture) when we came in was like, “Let’s have a postseason,’ ” Thome said. “… Now it’s time to show everyone why we think, no matter what we do, we should be able to continue our season more than one or two games. It’s more (than) being happy we’re in the Tournament. (It’s) being happy we’re winning games.” 

*** 

In their junior years, Munger and Thome made large contributions to Michigan’s first tournament team in five years. Munger’s hard work finally paid off and she joined Thome in the starting lineup. 

And while both Munger and Thome knew that they were in supporting roles in the Flaherty show, they both averaged career highs in points (9.1 points per game and 17.4 points per game, respectively) and rebounds (4.4 rebounds per game and 7 rebounds per game, respectively) — although Munger would increase her points per game mark in her senior season.

Following their junior seasons, it was finally Munger and Thome’s time to take over the reins of the program and assert themselves as team leaders. 

“When we first got our team together this summer, I just knew how excited I was,” Munger said. “This group was a really special group because we knew we had each other. … And we knew that we were missing a lot, but at the end of the day we still had so much.” 

At that first team meeting over the summer, Munger and Thome met with their new freshmen. 

Munger expected their first practice with the new players to be somewhat laid back and relaxing. The captain, the consensus hardest worker on the team, Munger expected to be the one who went abnormally hard and led the workout. Instead, the freshmen came out with a fire Munger hadn’t seen before. 

“They came in and ran this workout and I was dripping sweat,” Munger said. “They were doing each throwing drill, going back and forth with each other. And there was no competitiveness, which there usually is when freshmen come in because they’re trying to prove themselves to each other and see which one’s the best. They were just trying to get better.”

But that’s just a testament to what Munger and Thome’s senior campaign looked like. There was no sense of entitlement or feeling of superiority felt among the co-captains over the rest of the time. Even when the co-captains received All-Big Ten honors, they did not allow it to go to their heads. 

That, in part, is due to Munger and Thome’s personalities, as well as the sense of sisterhood instilled within the program —  a sisterhood Munger and Thome prided themselves on continuing.

“I think we’ve always been such a tight group over the years and we’ve always called each other sisters and bridesmaids and all that,” Thome said. “But I think to become a senior, and to see it all happening and to see the relationships being formed … I think it’s definitely a cool thing to see.”

That sense of sisterhood became especially important during the team’s early season struggles.

After starting out 3-6 in the Big Ten, things were not looking great for the Wolverines. It was left up to the senior co-captains to try to turn the tide in their final season. 

And while Thome and Munger could have taken a step back and allowed the season to spiral out of control, neither was willing to give up on their goal of making it back to the NCAA Tournament or throw away their last year at Michigan. 

“This January and February were a favorite part (of the season) of mine,” Munger said. “Everyone counted us out and I think it was just part of a defining moment where this program could have sunk this year and said to hell with it, but they followed our grit and our desire to make the tournament. 

“We got it done and that was really special to me.”

*** 

Now, with their senior seasons over, Munger and Thome finally have some free time on their hands to reflect on the last four years and do as they please for their final few weeks.

Munger continues to work out at the team’s facilities, decked out in Michigan gear, mulling over her future plans. She hopes to become a graduate assistant and, eventually, a coach. 

Thome, meanwhile, has taken the opposite approach. She’s spent her time at the public, university gyms — the North Campus Recreational Building to be specific. She’s distanced herself from the game a little bit more than Munger and has a summer internship in Chicago working for Nike before potentially taking a job in Fort Myers, Fla. 

But, even as the two players move on from Michigan, just like Flaherty, their legacies remain. 

“I want to be known (as) more than a basketball player,” Thome said. “… Being that type of person that someone can be like, ‘If she can do it, why can’t I?’ Just being more than a basketball player but an inspiration to anyone who’s either seen me on the basketball court or has gotten to know me and the person I am.”

For Munger, while the question of her legacy is a difficult one, the answer is one that anyone who has spent time around her in the last four years could answer. 

“I hope people remember me for just working hard every single possession and not taking any plays off,” Munger said. “That’s what I try to pride myself on and hope that I was able to do that. … And that anything’s possible. 

“You can’t count yourself out or count the team out. I didn’t really play too much my freshman and sophomore years but you shouldn’t stop working and I felt like I just kept working and it became possible.” 

Even with the departures of Munger and Thome, the two seniors are leaving the program in peak condition.

“It’s definitely exciting to know that this program is only on the rise,” Thome said. “And I think that’s the best part about leaving something is that you know it’s not about to go to the dumps. You know it’s only going to get better. … Everyone on that team, whether it’s a freshman or a junior, they’re all ready for the challenge and all ready for the leadership that comes with the challenge.”   

So even though Thome and Munger may have planted seeds in a garden they’ll never get to see, everything, including their legacies, will be just fine.