INDIANAPOLIS — On Friday evening, Michigan women’s
basketball coach Cheryl Burnett walked off the court with a hoarse
voice and a weary look. Her team had just finished playing out a
23-point defeat against Purdue, and it seemed that this game was
another one of the Wolverines’ cookie-cutter losses that
occurred consistently throughout the season.

But this particular loss was different. It marked the end of
Burnett’s first season as Michigan’s head coach.

When Burnett was hired last April, the hope was that she would
usher the program into a new and successful era. At Southwest
Missouri State, Burnett had led 10 of her 15 teams to the NCAA
Tournament and two as far as the Final Four. She won or shared 10
regular season conference titles, and compiled a record of 319-136
over her 15-year reign.

So how does Burnett feel about her first bunch of Wolverines,
who fell short of the .500-mark with a 14-17 overall record (6-10
Big Ten)?

“Coming into the year, the goal is to make the NCAA
Tournament,” Burnett said. “We weren’t close to
that, and that’s disappointing, because that’s what my
expectation is.”

Still, Burnett and her coaching staff made several tangible
marks on the program. Michigan doubled its conference win total
from last year, and in its final game of the season, beat then-No.
12 Minnesota.

Burnett also went to great lengths to increase the
Wolverines’ fan base. She even left automated messages on Ann
Arbor residents’ answering machines, inviting them to games.
She encouraged her players to meet fans and thank them for
attending, and she frequently called to the crowd as a sixth man at
critical times during games by waving her arms and stomping her
feet, a trademark move. Her efforts paid off, as attendance at home
games toward the end of the season soared over the 2,100-fan
average. When Michigan State came to Crisler in February, 4,611
people showed up to cheer, and set a new attendance record.

“I think we have some good building blocks,” Burnett
said in reference to the attendance record and an increase in
conference wins. “But (the coaching staff) wanted to have
more success than this.”

Although this was not quite the season Burnett and her staff had
in mind, few would disagree that a handful of Wolverines did
blossom this season under Burnett’s guidance.

Senior captain Jennifer Smith had a break-out season, averaging
21.2 points-per-game, compared to 14.6 last year. The senior holds
the school record for single-season scoring, and sits in second for
career scoring. Junior Tabitha Pool went from a struggling shooter
to a key cog in Michigan’s offensive scheme. Senior captain
Stephanie Gandy gained the ability to emotionally lead for the
entire game, as evidenced by her gutsy performance against Illinois
in a first-round Big Ten Tournament win.

“Our maturity of understanding strategic things — I
can’t even compare to where we started, because we’ve
just made magnificent leaps,” Burnett said.
“We’ve also made tremendous strides in intangibles
— leadership, competing. It’s night and day.”

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