Moral victory.

Few phrases conjure up more bittersweet sentiments.

And although the Michigan women’s basketball team held a slim lead with fewer than four minutes remaining against No. 16 Purdue last night, such a victory is all the Wolverines can claim to after faltering down the stretch in a 59-54 loss at Crisler Arena.

Michigan players Stephany Skrba, Jessica Minnfield and Carly Benson all testified to just how bittersweet it was.

When asked whether or not it could be a moral victory, each solemnly answered, “Yes and no.”

Yes because they hung close with Purdue, a viable contender for the Big Ten championship.

No because in the end, it’s just another loss – Michigan’s 16th of the season.

But after reflecting upon the first time these teams played, few believed the game would be close, let alone undecided in the waning minutes.

The Boilermakers outclassed Michigan on Dec. 28 in West Lafayette, blasting the Wolverines by 44 points.

Last night, Michigan proved it belonged on the same court as Purdue, surprising its black-and-gold clad opponents from the get-go.

Purdue coach Sharon Versyp tried to put a finger on what the Wolverines did to raise their level of competition.

“It’s 16 games later, everybody knows each other and everybody’s beating everybody else up,” Versyp said. “Every (Big Ten) team right now seems to be stepping up.”

Fighting, clawing and hustling throughout the first half, Michigan found itself in an unfamiliar position at halftime – leading a ranked team.

Michigan coach Cheryl Burnett’s squads have routinely struggled with ranked opponents. Coming into last night, Michigan’s record under Burnett against ranked opponents was a staggering 1-23. Her lone win was against Minnesota in her first season as head coach (2003-04).

This season has been no different. The Wolverines have a tough time against the top 25, losing to four teams by a combined score of 324-177, including the earlier debacle against Purdue.

Although the Wolverines played with the passion of a vengeful team, Burnett denied that the earlier matchup motivated her team.

“We don’t look ahead and we don’t look behind,” Burnett said. “We look at the next game ahead of us. . I do hope the kids had deep in their heart what happened in the last one, just to prove that we’ve come a long way since then.”

By going toe-to-toe with Purdue, Michigan proved it has come a long way since December.

But is a moral victory enough?

“Well, by this time in the season, we’re not satisfied by moral victories,” Burnett said. “Our kids are really disappointed. . We’re almost there. We just have to consistently play this way.”

Now, the Wolverines have to gear back up for a potential trap-game against the only team behind the Wolverines in the conference standings: Northwestern. But judging by tonight’s game, the Wolverines can compete with any team.

“A loss always hurts, but it does feel good to know that we’re playing together as a team better than we have,” Benson said. “We’re taking steps in the right direction.”

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