The Michigan women’s basketball team defeated Illinois, 68-53, on Thursday in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.
Compared to the seventh-seeded Wolverines, the Fighting Illini were the tenth seed and a weaker Big Ten team. In last year’s Big Ten Tournament, Michigan received a first-round bye and was upset by bottom-dwelling Illinois in the second round. The loss was a fatal blow because it practically ended any NCAA Tournament hopes the Wolverines had.
Like last year, Michigan is currently on the NCAA Tournament bubble, and yet again, it faced a similar scenario on Thursday. But the Wolverines used a stingy defense and an efficient scoring attack to easily handle the Fighting Illini on Thursday.
Though Michigan went on to lose to No. 16 Ohio State in the quarterfinals on Friday, the major work was already done.
Reaching 20 wins.
Since Michigan coach Kevin Borseth’s arrival in 2007, the Wolverines have yet to reach 20 wins prior to participating in the WNIT. Twenty wins doesn’t mean or guarantee anything, but it’s been looming over the program for a while, specifically last year when the Wolverines went 3-3 in the final month of the season to finish with a 17-13 record.
When Michigan went 9-1 in the first month this season, 20 wins seemed very reachable. Even as the season progressed, the Wolverines won some they should and lost some they shouldn’t, but the 20-win mark was always in their sights.
In the final week of the regular season, Michigan lost to then-No.22 Purdue in Ann Arbor and to Iowa on the road. Winning either of these games would have given the Wolverines 20 wins on the year, but they fell just short.
Senior guard Courtney Boylan has said all season that it was a goal of the team to reach 20 wins. But the team has also emphasized focusing on one game at a time and not looking too far ahead — specifically, worrying about numbers such as 20.
“Oh, (the win against Illinois) is huge,” Boylan said after the victory. “Not just win number 20, but win number one in the Big Ten Tournament. That’s what’s most important right now. That’s what we’re most focused on. It’s awesome. A great team win.”
Getting to the 20-win mark is a big step towards earning the team’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2001, and it’s also a big step for the program. Between 1999 and 2001 — the last stretch that Michigan appeared in the NCAA Tournament — a 20-win season was simply the standard.
For the current elite programs in the Big Ten — such as Purdue, Michigan State and Ohio State — not making the 20-win mark is considered a poor season. The Wolverines have finished with winning seasons in all but one of Borseth’s five years, but a winning record isn’t comparable to a 20-win season.
Though Borseth has been at the helm for five years, he was dealt the daunting task of rebuilding a faltering program when he took the job. Even after his team finally reached the mark they had been striving for, he only looked at Thursday’s game for what it was — a win. He also understands that when it comes to the NCAA Tournament, there are no certainties.
“(Twenty wins) is something you always shoot for,” Borseth said. “I don’t know that it’s the magic number, it’s not, but it’s a good number. Better than 19 and better than 17, which we had last year. But the first win in this tournament for us is just absolutely huge to put us on the right track and get our confidence back.”
Whether Michigan has done enough to earn its first NCAA berth in 11 seasons remains to be seen. But with 17 wins last year, the Wolverines thought they might have done enough for a spot in the field-of-66. When Selection Sunday came and went, and Michigan didn’t receive a berth to dance, it went back to the drawing board to prepare for the WNIT invitation it received.
NCAA Tournament bid or not, the 20-win benchmark is a big step for the women’s program. Borseth was talking about how the win against Illinois got Michigan back on track for the season, but the win really got the program back on track — period — and might be enough for the Wolverines to dance.