Seniors celebrate elusive win over Spartans

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By Daniel Feldman, Daily Sports Writer
Published February 16, 2013

As Michigan women’s basketball coach Kim Barnes Arico strolled into her postgame press conference on Saturday, she couldn’t control her excitement. After senior forward Kate Thompson wrapped up her interview, the duo embraced in an emotion-filled hug.

Thompson and her four other senior teammates did something on Saturday that the Wolverines (8-4 Big Ten, 19-6 overall) had not done since Jan. 13, 2008 – beat Michigan State, 70-69.

It’s been just that type of year for this Michigan team, led by its five seniors – Thompson, guard Jenny Ryan, and forwards Rachel Sheffer, Nya Jordan and Sam Arnold.

After gaining entry into the Associated Press Top-25 poll for the first time in more than 10 years in early January following a program-best start, the team followed it up with a road victory over then-No. 13 Purdue – the Wolverines’ first victory in West Lafayette since 1998.

“This senior class, we say has accomplished things that haven’t been accomplished for a Michigan women’s basketball team ever or not in a very long time,” Barnes Arico said. “One of things that they weren’t able to do in their time here was to beat Michigan State, so for them to be able to do that in their last opportunity on a day like today at our home place was truly incredible and they deserve that celebration. It’s been a long time coming.”

On Saturday, with the Crisler Center's lower bowl filled to the brim and a sellout crowd of 5,800 on hand, Michigan once again rode its seniors to victory.

“(The crowd) was awesome,” Thompson said. “They were loud. They really got into it too, which was huge. Every time we scored, it felt like an eruption.”

Thompson was key to the repeating bursts of loudness from the crowd. She contributed 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting, including four 3-pointers.

The loudest outbreak of noise from any of her shots came midway through the first half as the shot clock was winding down. Thompson collected the ball approximately 30 feet away from the basket and heaved up a prayer. Somehow, it went in.

While the crowd went into a fury, Ryan kept her cool.

“When (Kate) hit that, I looked at her and smiled,” Ryan said. “It’s just one of the plays that you pray that it goes in and when it does you move onto the next one.”

Such was how Ryan played on Saturday, as she posted a career-high 24 points while committing zero turnovers. She also chipped in eight rebounds, five assists and four steals in her 39 minutes of action.

Though it’s common for Ryan to distribute the ball, her scoring and overall level of play was something that this recent one-sided rivalry seemed to bring out.

“To see Jenny Ryan do some of the things she did that’s uncharacteristic of her normal abilities, I think on a day-in, day-out (basis),” said Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant. “She’s more of a facilitator. She just wasn’t going to have it today. She just decided that they were going to be a little bit better.”

Ryan exemplified this notion in the final minutes of the game, hitting two pairs of free throws that ultimately proved to be the deciding points in the game.

It was only appropriate for the Wolverines’ captain to be responsible for the final points in their first win in 13 tries against the Spartans (7-5, 19-6).

“This was Jenny’s moment,” Thompson said.

As a group, the seniors combined for 66 of the team’s 70 points. Jordan had 12 points and 7 rebounds, and Sheffer tacked on 8 points to go with 5 rebounds.

For a team that’s accomplished so much, it has held back in its celebrations in past games. But after the game on Saturday, the energy came bubbling out.

“Just the amount of energy, and excitement, and pride when I opened that locker room door, it was an outburst,” Barnes Arico said.

The party didn’t stop there, either. After her press conference, Barnes Arico stepped away from the podium, ready to leave the room. But before she could exit, she had to let out one last line – or lyric if you know the Kool & the Gang classic.

“Celebrate good times, come on,” she sang.

Celebrate, indeed.