Playing with newfound passion, Wolverines move on

Delaney Ryan/Daily
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By Jacob Gase, Daily Sports Writer
Published March 26, 2015

When Missouri started the WNIT Round of 16 matchup on a 12-3 run and later rode a 13-2 streak into a five-point halftime lead, it appeared that the Michigan women’s basketball team’s inconsistent season was headed for a disappointing end.

But at halftime, the Wolverines refused to let memories of past failures take over. Instead of letting the game slip away, Michigan committed to correcting its first-half mistakes — the same ones that led to countless losses in the regular season.

“The kids came out (in the second half) and were right on point,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “They did what they needed to do, really bought in, really defended and were able to make plays. I think that was the turning point. They just said, ‘Hey, this isn’t happening to us again.’ ”

The Wolverines’ second-half defense wasn’t just persistent — it was incredibly timely.

Just four minutes into the second half, senior forward Cyesha Goree grabbed a crucial defensive rebound with her team trailing, 35-34. On the ensuing drive, she knocked down a jumper to put Michigan back on top.

The Wolverines finished with nine steals, and senior guard Shannon Smith and freshman guard Katelynn Flaherty each picked up one within a minute early in the second half. Michigan forced 16 turnovers in the second half and 32 in the entire game.

“It was all defense,” Goree said. “Whether we got a jump ball or caused a travel, whatever, we just played great team defense.”

Michigan’s dynamic performance on offense and defense was fueled in part by an incredibly vocal crowd at Crisler Center, but the Wolverines’ seniors had even more reason to be amped up.

“Our seniors want to go out hanging a banner, so they’re kind of on a mission,” Barnes Arico said. “They don’t want to take off that Michigan uniform — they want to have the opportunity to wear it one more time. ... There’s nothing like it.”

Added senior forward Nicole Elmblad: “At this point in the season, every game can be our last. It was special for us to be able to go out there and play in front of a crowd like this. We all just came together and played really strong and played our hearts out.”

At certain points of the game, the seniors seemed to physically will their team to victory.

Despite facing a serious size disadvantage, Goree fought valiantly in the paint, securing 14 rebounds and adding 12 points to cap off a double-double. Elmblad — usually not known for her clutch scoring ability — scored 11 points of her own, including multiple baseline jumpers to preserve the lead down the stretch. And even though she initially struggled with turnovers, Smith finished with a team-high 13 points and Michigan’s lone 3-pointer.

The Wolverines’ visible enthusiasm was even more prominent than their box score. Goree and Smith cheered and celebrated after the former made a difficult hook shot to give Michigan its first lead midway through the first half. And as loud as the crowd got for every foul call and every made basket, the Wolverines’ bench was even louder.

“We’re playing with a passion and enthusiasm that had kind of gotten stagnant for a little bit,” Barnes Arico said.

And if Michigan’s body language after the victory means anything — smiles all around, Goree playfully hugging Flaherty with one arm — that passion won’t allow the seniors to hang up their uniforms any time soon.