Brad Whipple: Closer than ever before

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By Brad Whipple, Daily Sports Writer
Published April 1, 2015

The Michigan women’s basketball team’s season ended when the buzzer sounded. Senior forward Nicole Elmblad bit into her jersey and rested her hands on her hips as she watched UCLA celebrate a WNIT championship berth, something she has never experienced. The senior’s decorated career was over, and all she could do was stare at the ground as her teammates lined up to congratulate the victors. Along with the team, she waved to the crowd for their support and hustled into the tunnel one last time.

After a 69-65 loss to the Bruins ended the Wolverines’ season in the WNIT semifinals, they left behind a crowd that filled Crisler Center with more noise than ever before. More importantly, though, they left behind an empty space above the team’s bench — one that will have to wait a little longer to be filled by a banner.

During postgame interviews, Elmblad was red-eyed as she rested her hands on her cheeks. Emotionally overwhelmed by both the loss and the effort her team had put in until the end, she knew it was her last time donning the maize and blue.

But Elmblad and her team didn’t go out without a fight. Michigan refused to turn down the high-tempo game that led the Wolverines to a WNIT semifinal for the first time in five years. Even after a season filled with over-the-top victories coupled with heart-wrenching losses, the spirit was still alive and the confidence continued to grow.

A few weeks ago, it was no different when the reality sunk in that Michigan would miss another NCAA Tournament. Instead, Elmblad and fellow seniors Cyesha Goree and Shannon Smith got together for dinner before the WNIT and vowed that they would maintain the winning mentality, even if it wasn’t for the national title.

“We want to do something — make a name for ourselves,” Smith said. “I feel like we put it all out there.”

Michigan did put it all on the floor. The Wolverines could have packed it in after a blowout loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament, but they stuck with it and ended up being one of the final eight teams in the country still playing basketball.

And they were so close to being one of the final four.

They were so close when sophomore guard Danielle Williams hustled back on defense with a UCLA guard on a breakaway, eventually planting her feet and drawing a charge. They were so close when Smith drew a foul afterward and tied the game with two freebies that put everyone in Crisler on their feet and into an absolute frenzy. It was short-lived, though, and a jumper from guard Nirra Fields stymied it moments later.

They were so close with 52 seconds left, when the team put the “Purple Three” play into motion, designed to get freshman guard Katelynn Flaherty open. It worked in getting Flaherty space at the top of the key, and she let loose a 3-pointer that could have given Michigan the lead.

Goree thought that would be the moment. Eagerly waiting under the basket for the rebound, she remembered Flaherty sinking the exact same shot from the exact same spot months earlier against Ohio State, a shot that ultimately paved the way for a win. But this was different. Instead, Flaherty’s 3-pointer rimmed out before dropping into the hands of a Bruin. Goree thought that maybe Flaherty was “just too open.”

Michigan was so close each time sophomore guard Siera Thompson planted her foot and launched the ball, putting fans on the edge of their seats as they hoped she could finally make one. Instead, Thompson was held scoreless for the first time in her career. A California native, Thompson’s nerves got the best of her as she played against players she grew up with.

“She’s been having a hell of a career,” Barnes Arico said. “And then tonight, she’s playing against her best friends she grew up with. That killed her. … That one’s gonna bother (Thompson) for a long time.”

And it was so close when the Wolverines were down by three and UCLA missed the first of a 1-and-1 opportunity. But the Bruins grabbed the rebound, forcing Michigan to foul once more and make it a two-possession game.

“We’ve had a lot of games that have went down to the wire like this, (and) we’ve kinda been through this before,” Goree said. “We thought we had it and knew what to do at the end.”

But despite how close this individual game may have been — a game that had 12 ties and 11 lead changes — the Wolverines are even closer to finally hanging a banner when the next season rolls around.

When the day comes for a banner to fill the only gap left inside Crisler, Barnes Arico said she is going to give this year’s senior class the net that she cuts down. They not only allowed the team to get this far by embodying the grit and passion Barnes Arico wants to instill in every player, but also by setting the example that playing hard is mandatory, even if it’s the WNIT.

Because Michigan still wanted to rewrite history, and it will.

Elmblad, Goree and Smith represent Barnes Arico’s most successful experiment.

During Barnes Arico’s second year, Elmblad became a more efficient player, ultimately finding a new niche at the forward position and improving in nearly every statistical category. In her final two seasons, she was the unanimous choice for the team captain.

Smith was a latecomer, joining the squad in Barnes Arico’s second year, but still scored 920 points during her two years at Michigan, eclipsing 1,000 career points. Barnes Arico took a 5-foot-7 point guard and turned her into a versatile and speedy guard-turned-rebounder that was ruthless in transition.

Then there’s Goree, who tore her anterior cruciate ligament twice and played just 32 total minutes before Barnes Arico’s arrival, but ended her career as the only Michigan player to post back-to-back seasons with 300-plus rebounds.

Now, Barnes Arico has another recruiting class to toy with. The skilled freshmen will complement an already impressive group of rising sophomores and a senior class made up of Madison Ristovski and Kelsey Mitchell.

Even in their absence, Smith, Goree and Elmblad will leave around a legacy that will live with the program for years to come. The winningest senior class has changed the Michigan program for good, because they have proven Barnes Arico will foster the growth these players are looking for at the collegiate level.

For the returners, Wednesday’s loss means one thing.

“It’s, ‘Hey, if I’m ever in this position again, I’m gonna make this play,’ ” Barnes Arico said. “I hope they come back super motivated that this is never going to happen to (them) again.”

No matter how close the Wolverines came to reaching the WNIT championship, getting this far has meant enough. Elmblad, Smith and Goree defied the odds even after they had switched coaches or switched schools.

They showed anything is attainable. And next year, when — not if — Michigan reaches the NCAA Tournament, the Wolverines will continue to inch even closer toward a banner.

Wednesday night, the record book didn’t close. In fact, it has turned to a blank page, because Michigan is closer than ever before.

Brad Whipple can be reached by email at bmwhip@umich.edu and on Twitter @brad_whipple.