Michigan crushes Liberty 74-50, moves to preseason WNIT semifinals
Katelynn Flaherty snaked around the top of the key, stopped on a dime and rattled the shot. Up on the Crisler Center scoreboard, a graphic flashed: nine points to go.
Alas, this was not the day Flaherty would break Diane Dietz’s all-time scoring record. Those were her last points of the day. Hold the countdown, at least for now.
"I forgot about the record," joked Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico after the game. “And then when I took her out of the game, someone had mentioned to me how many points away she was. Obviously we knew coming into the year Katelynn was going to set the record. She’s just such a tremendous player. But my concern with Katelynn right now is making sure she’s rested, making sure she has a tremendous season, making sure she stays injury free.”
Still, the No. 24 Michigan women’s basketball team dominated Liberty from start to finish Sunday, winning 74-50 and moving on to the preseason WNIT semifinals against the winner of Louisville and Toledo’s matchup Tuesday.
Flaherty’s pursuit of the record will be made the story of this game, but the Wolverines’ defense was what won it so easily. Michigan — which normally plays a 2-3 zone — went to a press toward the end of the first quarter. The results were almost immediate. Right at the start of the second, sophomore forward Kayla Robbins picked up a deflection, leading to a 10-second violation on Liberty. Just seconds later, freshman guard Deja Church stole the ball away with the Lady Flames still in the backcourt and laid it up. The rout was on.
“Coach Wes (Brooks), it was his scout. That was his gameplan,” Barnes Arico said. “He thought that if we pressured them and made them speed up a little bit, it would play into our hands. That was his call after the scout. It was a great call.”
By halftime, the Wolverines were up by 20. When the third quarter ended, the margin was 27. When the final horn sounded, the score was 74-50 and the game not as close as that.
Michigan forced 17 Liberty turnovers, most of them with the press. Other than freshman forward Hailey Brown, every Wolverine starter had at least one steal. Even when the Lady Flames got it down the court, they were near-hapless most of the time. When Liberty managed to find open shooters, the ball seemed to hit air more often than net.
In addition to scoring 20, Flaherty picked up five assists. For this being just her second ever start at point guard, the senior seems to be an adept learner. She did everything from beating Liberty’s press by finding Hallie Thome downcourt for a layup to snaking in and out of the paint, opening up junior guard Nicole Munger for a 3-pointer.
Munger finished with 13 points of her own on 3-for-5 shooting from beyond the arc. She also had three steals and thrived in the press, picking up deflection after deflection as the game went on. Michigan finished with 26 points off turnovers, a good portion of those thanks to her.
Sophomore guard Akienreh Johnson also saw her first extended time on the court after suffering an ACL injury last season. She came in at the start of the second quarter, however, didn’t get her name on the statsheet until the end of the half. Munger nearly lost the ball after stealing it away from the Lady Flames. Johnson, however, took it right back and ran down the remainder of the court for an easy lay-in. Though Johnson played only a minute in the Wolverines' opener, the 15 she had Sunday were a step-up from than the feeling-out time she had previously.
“It was just great to see her out there,” Barnes Arico said. “She’s worked incredibly hard and she’s had some setbacks. To watch her bbattle back, and her perseverance, was just inspirational to us all.”
In all likelihood, Michigan will get its first big test of the year Thursday. Louisville — their opponents barring a massive upset — is the ninth-ranked team in the country, and Michigan will go on the road to play them.
However, the Wolverines have passed their first two tests, and done so with flying colors.