The Michigan women’s basketball team’s tumultuous 2014-15 season, which saw NCAA Tournament hopes fizzle after a disappointing finish in conference play, is finally nearing its conclusion.
And despite falling short of their preseason goals, the Wolverines have committed themselves to a new cause: sending their trio of seniors — guard Shannon Smith and forwards Cyesha Goree and Nicole Elmblad — out on a high note with the program’s first-ever WNIT championship.
After double-digit victories over Cleveland State and Toledo in the tournament’s first two rounds, Michigan seems determined to hang the first women’s basketball banner at Crisler Center. But its strong WNIT run — which resumes when the Wolverines face Missouri on Thursday in Ann Arbor — is just as important for the program’s future as it is for its beloved senior class.
“It’s great for our seniors to finish on a great note, but it’s also really important that our five freshmen continue to work and continue to improve,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico after the victory over Cleveland State.
Guard Katelynn Flaherty has been the only major freshman contributor all season, moving in and out of the starting lineup and working to overcome her inconsistencies. Now, in the postseason, lesser-used freshmen like forwards Jillian Dunston and Emoni Jackson have been given chances to display the results of their hard work in practice.
Before the postseason, both Dunston and Jackson only saw the floor for short periods when Barnes Arico wanted a short burst of energy. Both showed flashes of talent — especially when it came to playing off the glass — but both also let their high motors and inexperience get the best of them by committing fouls at a high rate.
But now, in the WNIT, the two have combined for nine points and nine rebounds in 38 total minutes. The Wolverines’ recent opponents haven’t quite met the lofty standard of competition set by Big Ten teams, but the freshmen have shown signs of hope for the future of the Michigan frontcourt without Elmblad and Goree.
“Our younger kids have stepped up,” Barnes Arico told WTKA Radio on Tuesday. “Practices have been tremendous, and we’re continuing to improve.”
It’s not just the younger players who are displaying signs of growth as the season draws to a close. The team as a whole is starting to right its past mistakes.
When Toledo cut a 19-point deficit to just 10 with 6:44 remaining, and when Goree ended up on the bench in foul trouble, the game suddenly felt eerily similar to the Wolverines’ losses to Ohio State, Nebraska and Northwestern, in which the team held significant leads before inexplicably falling apart without Goree in the game.
Only this time, Michigan answered every Rocket run and held on for a 74-58 victory.
“It was pretty impressive, especially at (Toledo’s) place,” Barnes Arico said. “It was such a great environment, and they were making runs at us, and we knew they were going to make a run. And every time they did, our kids were able to make big plays. It was so great to see our growth and different people stepping up at different times.”
Playing in the WNIT, win or lose, was not the ending the Wolverines were hoping for when their season began in November.
But for players like Dunston, Jackson and junior guard Madison Ristovski — who stands to be a team leader next season and has caught fire down the stretch — the tournament has been a golden opportunity to step up and prove themselves.
And for Michigan, it’s one last chance to atone for this season’s failures and work toward a brighter future.