INDIANAPOLIS – Michigan had finally come alive.
The Wolverines started playing last weekend like the team that was picked along with the Boilermakers by Big Ten coaches to finish at the top of the standings, instead of the team that finished with a 6-10 conference record.
Trailing Purdue by 10 points early in the second half, the Wolverines didn’t let the game get away as they had in many of their conference games. Instead, they fought back with a 34-16 run to take an eight-point lead with four-and-a-half minutes remaining.
The Wolverines played more aggressively than they had all season, constantly falling for and getting loose rebounds and making some key defensive stops.
The unforced errors that plagued Michigan all season long were gone. The team turned the ball over just 11 times against Purdue (a season low) and 13 times against Illinois, well below its average of 18 per game.
And then things fell apart.
Michigan stopped hustling. The Wolverines allowed Purdue to get two offensive rebounds on one possession which led to the Boilermakers tying the score.
The turnovers resurfaced. Alayne Ingram traveled with 12 seconds remaining in a tie game and her team in position to win the game.
The defense broke down. Michigan allowed Purdue to score 13 points in overtime and couldn’t make a stop when it needed one. Down by three with one minute left in overtime, Purdue’s Kelly Komara was left wide open for a baseline jumper that ended Michigan’s chances for a comeback.
Despite the late breakdown, Purdue coach Kristy Curry thought that Michigan’s gutsy performance showed it deserved an NCAA Tournament bid.
“You’ve got to take a look at Michigan if you’re the NCAA Tournament Committee,” Curry said. “I think they deserve to get in.”
If Michigan had played all year like it did this past weekend, it would be a lock for the NCAA Tournament.
“We played two good back-to-back games,” Michigan coach Sue Guevara said. “We showed that we were one of the top 64 teams.
“But I think it is too late.”
But because the Wolverines did not play with the intensity and confidence during the conference season, they will probably have to settle for the WNIT. Michigan failed to display this do-or-die intensity when it lost to an Ohio State team that only dressed seven players or when it lost by 20 to Penn State on senior day.
“I think we would have had a lot better record if we would have played this well (throughout),” senior Heather Oesterle said.
After starting out the season 10-1 and playing well this weekend, the Wolverines can look back and wonder what could have been. It was not until they arrived at Conseco Fieldhouse that they played like there was no tomorrow.
For this year’s underclassmen, Guevara hopes last weekend will be a learning experience. They should realize now that in order to win in the Big Ten and in the postseason, they need to go all out every time they step on the floor.
“That’s what I hope all these underclassmen understand,” Guevara said. “You need this kind of effort against the Ohio States, against the Penn States, against the Purdues. It’s not turn on, turn off.”
And that hunger can’t just start in March.
“That starts in the very beginning. That starts in September,” Guevara said. “And that’s what was never understood on the team.”
But for the seniors – Oesterle, Ingram, and Susana Jara – they can only look back wish things took a different course.