Michigan upsets Maryland 71-65, sealing NCAA Tournament bid in all but name
There are two types of heroes: Those you expect and those that come from nowhere. Michigan found both on Thursday.
When the ball found senior guard Katelynn Flaherty, open in the corner with 2:35 to go in the game and the Wolverines clinging onto a 60-59 lead over Maryland, she did the same thing she’s done a million times before. She rose and hit it.
When the ball found Akienreh Johnson a minute later, the Terrapins having gotten the deficit back to two, the guard decided to get in on the action. Johnson, who was averaging just 2.5 points per game coming into Thursday, fired one from deep. She hit it.
“The whole year, my teammates have been telling me, ‘AK, just shoot it,’ ” the sophomore said. “So, I had to just shoot one.”
Though Maryland answered with a Kaila Charles layup, junior guard Nicole Munger converted a driving layup as she fell away from the basket to extend the Wolverines’ lead to 68-63 with 30 seconds to go in the game.
That was when you knew. This was really going to happen. There would be no collapse, no lingering doubt on the way to Indianapolis, no tears a week from Monday when the selection show commences.
Michigan (10-6 Big Ten, 21-8 overall) beat No. 13 Maryland (11-4, 22-6), 71-65, on Senior Night and with the win, all but sealed the program’s first tournament berth since 2012-13 — before any current senior was on the roster — a year after being left out on the night of the selection show.
“Coming off the floor, coach (Kim Barnes) Arico said, ‘This better be the last one (at Crisler),’ ” Flaherty said. “To go to the NCAA Tournament, for the first time, our senior year, will be awesome.”
Added Barnes Arico: “I think our kids have put themselves in an incredible position. Last year, they said we didn’t have top-50 wins. We have three top-25 (wins) right now.”
As the clock hit zero, Johnson jumped into senior forward Jillian Dunston’s arms at midcourt.
“When the buzzer went off, when we finally won, I know the feeling that Kate and Jill have,” Johnson said, “because they worked so hard for this and so the win, just — it felt right to jump into her arms. There’s nothing (else) you could do, really.”
Johnson tied Flaherty to lead the team in scoring with 17, doing so on 8-of-11 shooting with eight rebounds. This in a game where she played more than her usual handful of minutes only because freshman forward Hailey Brown was out with an injury.
“I just think that right now, I’m not on anybody’s scout, so where they (can‘t) know what to do with me,” Johnson said. “So, I took advantage of that and I made myself open. And now, when I make myself open, it takes pressure off of everybody else.”
Michigan jumped out to an early lead, starting the affair with an 11-4 run bookended by a pull-up triple from Flaherty. Though Maryland closed the gap to three, the Wolverines strung together an 8-2 run to close out the first quarter.
When the lead continued to build early in the second quarter, Michigan could feel it — not just the win, but all that came with it. March Madness was well within the Wolverines’ grasp.
Of course, it wasn’t that easy.
A layup from the Terrapins’ Ieshia Small cut Michigan’s lead to 10 with six minutes to go in the half. Over the next few minutes, 10 became six, six became one. Even after Munger hit a corner 3-pointer with just under two minutes left in the half to put the lead back to four, the Wolverines got sloppy. Flaherty turned the ball over taking it up the court when she passed into the teeth of what looked to be a half-court trap. After Stephanie Jones finished a layup with time running down, Michigan went into the half with the slimmest of 35-33 leads.
What had been an impending blowout turned into a game where every missed shot clinked off the rim with an extra emphasis.
Maryland managed to tie it at 37 early in the third with a mini 4-0 run, but couldn’t take its first lead. Not for the rest of the quarter. Not for the rest of the game.
“Everything we worked on today is what we worked on the last three days of practice,” Barnes Arico said. “We throw the ball — like, I’ll have five people standing at half-court, throw the ball up, ‘A minute left in the game. What are we running? What are we in? What defense?’ We’re holding up defense, we have different people on the bench calling (instructions), ‘Okay, now what are we running? What are we doing on defense?’ Because that’s the game. And that’s where we needed to get better.”
That, the Wolverines did.