This wasn’t just another free throw. For senior guard Jenny Ryan, it was the last shot she would ever take on the Crisler Center floor.
Ryan swiftly sunk the basket as she’s done throughout her 123 appearances as a Wolverine, but this time she took an extra second, stepped back and took it all in. A rare moment for the captain of the Michigan women’s basketball team, Ryan, who typically has an intense demeanor, took on a different expression — one of reflection.
“At those moments, it kind of hits home that this is it,” Ryan said.
In their final home game, the Wolverines’ five seniors ensured their swan song wouldn’t be spoiled by Northwestern. They imposed their dominance on offense, accounting for 52 of the Wolverines’ 55 total points. The Wildcats (5-10 Big Ten, 13-15 overall) attempted to make a late run but couldn’t overcome 18 turnovers, falling to Michigan, 55-50.
An emotional night for the Wolverines’ seniors began with a ceremony that honored the graduating class, but the tears and sentiments were pushed aside until the final buzzer sounded. Meanwhile, Michigan (9-6, 20-8) pounded the ball into the post to collect 34 points in the paint. Though Northwestern won the rebounding battle, it struggled from the field, shooting just 37.7 percent from the floor.
“I thought we played well in spurts, and I thought we struggled in spurts, but it was nice to be able to grind one out,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “It was really an important night for our senior class and there were a lot of emotions. As a coach, you always try to eliminate distractions on a night like tonight, but you really can’t do a great job of that.”
Senior forward Rachel Sheffer controlled the post for the Wolverines, scoring a team-high 17 points along with six rebounds. Ryan contributed her fair share, finishing with 12 points and eight assists on the night. Completing her seventh double-double of the season, senior guard Nya Jordan scored 11 points and grabbed 11 rebounds against the Wildcats.
Northwestern’s freshmen forward duo of Maggie Lyon and Lauren Douglas helped lead the Wildcats back into the game on a couple of impressive runs. Lyon, who had been named the Big Ten Freshmen of the Week for the past three weeks, scored 18 points and gathered seven rebounds in the contest.
After a back-and-forth first half that saw Michigan go on an 8-0 run only to be answered by a 7-0 Northwestern run, the Wolverines went into the locker room holding a 24-21 lead.
Out of the break, Wildcat forward Kendall Hackney scored two consecutive baskets to fuel Northwestern’s offensive charge. The Wolverines responded though, distributing the basketball and allowing their seniors to battle for the lead. Sheffer sparked a 9-0 run by converting eight points from offensive rebounds, but the Wildcats were persistent.
Northwestern managed to spark a 15-5 scoring streak with less than 10 minutes left, cutting the Michigan lead to three points. Yet it was Michigan’s leader, Ryan, who knocked down four late free throws to edge out the Wildcats.
“Northwestern has grown so much as a team throughout the Big Ten season,” Sheffer said. “They started a little rocky, but they are a really good team. They definitely put it to the pedal tonight. We had some moments where we were a little shaky, but to come out and grind it out was really big for us.”
At 9-6 in the Big Ten, the Wolverines no longer control their own destiny in the conference standings. After two consecutive losses coming into Thursday night’s game, Michigan must now jostle with four other teams to earn a bye in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.
“We won the game on senior night, but I think we’re more excited because we bounced back off a couple of losses,” Sheffer said. “We got more momentum going into Ohio State and the Big Ten Tournament.”
Even if the Wolverines don’t receive a first-round bye in the upcoming conference tournament, this season has been far from disappointing. Thursday’s victory over Northwestern marked yet another record for this season’s team as Barnes Arico broke the record for all-time program wins as a first-year head coach.
The senior class has done something that no other team in program history has been able to accomplish — take Michigan women’s basketball to an elite level. This season, the Wolverines have already accomplished the program’s best start while cracking the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time in 10 years.
“Our goal coming in was always just to leave the program better than we found it,” Ryan said. “That progressive climb has led us to where we are. I’m not surprised as to what has happened because of all the hard work over the years from everybody, but we’re happy where it’s at now. “
So while their basketball careers at Michigan aren’t yet completed, the seniors were able to join Ryan in a moment of reflection. And even if this was their final game at Crisler Center, the legacy of the Wolverines’ graduating class surely won’t be forgotten.
“(The seniors) are going to have one of the best legacies ever — one of the best four years that has come through Michigan women’s basketball,” Barnes Arico said. “This senior class really put Michigan’s women’s basketball on the map.”