Hunter Sharf: Seniors Flaherty and Dunston leave legacy cemented
For one last time, Katelynn Flaherty and Jillian Dunston donned the maize and blue at Crisler Center.
Prior to the game on Senior Night, they were honored at center court. Surrounded by their families, Flaherty and Dunston each received framed jerseys. Though a rather simple and customary tradition, it was a nice way to celebrate two Michigan women’s basketball greats.
And while the two have certainly asserted themselves among the program’s best, their legacy, in part, hinged on the result of Thursday’s game against No. 13 Maryland.
While a win against one of the nation’s best teams would solidify the Wolverines’ NCAA Tournament chances, a loss would have put them on the bubble — and perhaps out of the Tournament.
But Michigan won the seniors’ final regular season game, 71-65. And while it’s not a shoo-in, the Wolverines should earn a trip to the dance.
Going into Thursday, they had lost four of their last five. A team that seemed like a lock for the Tournament just a few weeks ago entered the game against Maryland barely clinging to Tournament hopeful.
Under the leadership of its seniors, Michigan prevailed. Despite leading the team in scoring, Flaherty had a rather pedestrian game by her standards, finishing with 17 points and four assists. She did hit a clutch 3-pointer with 2:35 to go, though, putting the Wolverines up four.
Per usual, Dunston’s stat line was underwhelming — five points, seven rebounds and two steals. But her impact was felt on defense. Under Dunston’s leadership, Michigan held the Terrapins — who rank third in 3-point percentage and 13th in offense nationally — to just 65 points and 0-for-9 from behind the arc.
The win was the first time the seniors have beaten Maryland.
“It was double special for me,” Dunston said. “I grew up in Maryland, watching Maryland. (I was) a big fan of them. I wasn’t really recruited there, for us to beat them — they’re a nationally-touted team — at a time we really need to.”
The win should get Dunston and Michigan into the Tournament, as they now have three top-25 wins. But, at this point last year, it seemed that the Wolverines were locks for the Tournament.
“After what happened last year, I will not believe another thing, ever,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “We can go win the Big Ten Tournament, and I’ll be, ‘Oh my gosh’ on Selection Monday.”
With Michigan’s last Tournament appearance coming in 2013, Flaherty and Dunston have never experienced March Madness.
So would missing this year’s Tournament, and therefore never qualifying, tarnish the legacy of the two seniors?
Not entirely, but it wouldn’t help.
The two still have much to be proud of.
Flaherty — a four-year starter — is arguably the best player in program history. The Point Pleasant, N.J. product has led the Wolverines in scoring each of her four seasons. Her proficiency on offense has left her with exactly 2,700 points — the most in program history.
While Dunston doesn’t receive as much notoriety, her play is certainly imperative. Dunston is the voice of the team, always yelling out commands, energizing her team and playing with maximum effort. She does the little things that don’t necessarily show up in the box score. For the past two seasons, she has been the Wolverines’ best defender. She ranks third all-time in rebounds and 11th in steals.
The stats speak for themselves.
In a video played on the scoreboard, Flaherty claimed her greatest memory was beating Ohio State in Columbus earlier this year. For Dunston, it was winning the WNIT Tournament last year.
But they both agreed, making a run in the NCAA Tournament would trump those memories.
And Thursday’s win put them one step closer to making that a reality.
“This was so crucial to out NCAA bid,” Dunston said. “No one wins the WNIT and then goes back. You want to go to the Tournament.”
Regardless of if they qualify for the Tournament or not, the legacy of their character alone makes them Michigan greats.
“What Jillian Dunston and Katelynn Flaherty have meant to our program, to the culture of our program, is just incredible,” Barnes Arico said. “The kind of people they are and the example they set for the players in our program, for the people in the community, for young girls out there aspiring to be college basketball players. They are Michigan kids. They are leaders and best.”
Sharf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.