INDIANAPOLIS — Tabitha Pool paused to apologize for the eloquence missing in her responses. Her voice quivering, Pool told us she was trying. She didn’t need to explain why it was so hard for her to speak. There just weren’t words to capture her feelings at that moment.

Pool didn’t want to believe her Michigan career had ended like that.

It wasn’t the fairytale finish the senior co-captain deserved. The Big Ten’s fifth-leading scorer in the regular season scored just nine points in the Wolverines’ first-round loss. She turned the ball over six times. She missed three times as many shots as she made.

No one asked Pool directly if she was disappointed in her less-than-perfect performance. But no one needed to ask. It was clear Pool cared more about her team and its loss than her below-average scoring output.

Pool never seemed to embrace the spotlight. After four years in which her role on the team kept growing, she still recoils slightly when talking about herself. Last Thursday, when asked how she was able to contribute without her shots falling, Pool described how she encouraged her teammates. She could have mentioned her game-high 11 rebounds or her four assists. But Pool is a humble star, and that humility feeds her team-first mentality. I wonder if her individual struggles even crossed her mind.

One reporter seemed to understand her dedication to the team. He asked Pool what she had left with her young teammates, what lessons she had taught them.

“That everyone can be a leader, and just to work hard and give it your all every time you step on the floor,” Pool answered.

More than her skills or her stats, those are the qualities that define Pool as a player.

Pool is not a born leader. She’s not especially vocal, and she rarely rides her teammates when they’re not executing. But Pool understood that as the Wolverines’ go-to player and one of just two seniors on the team, she would be their unquestioned leader.

So, as she did in Michigan’s first-round loss, Pool led her teammates the only way she could — by working hard and giving it her all every time she stepped on the floor.

And Pool has always given it her all. With two minutes left in Michigan’s 78-59 home loss to the Hawkeyes on Feb. 20 — and Iowa on the free-throw line extending its lead — Pool pounded her fist against her heart and implored her teammates to keep fighting. The game was as good as over, but Pool wouldn’t accept that the battle was lost.

She showed the same spirit in the Wolverines’ loss last Thursday. Pool grabbed two of her rebounds in the final minute and a half of the game. She cited her positive attitude as the greatest asset to her team that night — not her points or her rebounds. And all season long, that’s what has made the biggest impact.

There were few games in which Michigan looked like it wasn’t fighting. No matter how large the lead or how long the losing streak, the Wolverines’ effort rarely wavered. They were still snatching rebounds, still diving on the floor, still trying to execute. They always said they had heart. Well, most of the time they did. But much of it came in the form of a 6-foot-1 forward from Ann Arbor.

The one bright spot in the Wolverines’ 28-point loss was that they finally learned the lesson Pool had tried so hard to teach them. Early in the second half, Pool was on the bench, getting the only three minutes of rest she would receive. In most games this season, Michigan collapsed without Pool on the floor. Last Thursday, the Wolverines chipped away at Iowa’s lead and truly didn’t give up.

Watching her teammates play with that kind of effort must have lessened the pain of another lopsided loss. But knowing that she would never again fight for the Wolverines must have broken her heart.

I’m sure Pool would have loved to score 40 points and grab 20 rebounds in her final game. But those numbers wouldn’t have mattered to her unless Michigan had won. It’s the ultimate cliché, but, for Pool, it’s also the absolute truth. All of her effort and emotion were spent so that Pool could lead her team to what would have been a real fairytale ending — a win.

Pool didn’t have her best game on Thursday night. And she couldn’t will her team to victory. But, as Pool said, she was trying.

For that, she has no reason to apologize.

 

Stephanie Wright can be reached at smwr@umich.edu.

 

 

 

 

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