Throughout the Women’s National Invitational Tournament, Madison Ristovski has told her teammates, “This isn’t going to be my last game,” while still playing like it will be. With every performance Ristovski had in the WNIT, she has played the best basketball of her career to delay the last time she dons the maize and blue.
But in the Final Four against Florida Gulf Coast on Thursday, the senior guard could no longer prolong the end. Ristovski scored 19 points, but it was in vain, as the Wolverines fell, 71-62, to end their season.
Since the Eagles’ inaugural season in Division I in 2007, they have won more than 90 percent of their home games at their home Alico Center — a win percentage second only to Connecticut during that time span. That figure alone was a hint that Michigan would need everything they had to pull out a victory in its first time away from Crisler Center in the WNIT.
“It definitely helps in this tournament to play on your home court, a place where you shoot and practice every day,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “I think that definitely played into their advantage, but they still made shots and they did what they needed to do to seal the game down the stretch when we made that run.”
The Eagles (33-5) scored the first basket of the game with a 3-pointer, but soon after they went into a four-minute drought, shooting 0-for-8 while the Wolverines went on a 9-0 run before a timeout at the 4:54 mark in the first quarter. Florida Gulf Coast didn’t remain quiet for much longer, though, as it knocked down its next three 3-pointers to take the lead. The Eagles used their hot shooting from distance to cap off the first quarter with a 13-2 run to take the lead, 16-11.
Michigan (22-14) struggled to take care of the ball in the first frame, committing six turnovers that turned into 11 points for the Eagles. The Wolverines went on an 8-0 run and took over the lead twice for brief moments in the beginning of the second quarter, but Florida Gulf Coast regained momentum at the end of the first half with a blocked shot and a coast-to-coast layup to go up by six. The Wolverines had one more opportunity to score before the end of the half, but freshman center Hallie Thome was denied at the rim.
“I wish I had that first and second quarter back to change the tempo a little more like we did in the second half,” Barnes Arico said. “They exposed our young defenders and they did a great job of that.”
Florida Gulf Coast’s defense, which allows 49.1 points per game — second-fewest in the nation behind Connecticut — proved its legitimacy against Michigan in the first half. The Wolverines shot 10-for-28 from the floor while giving up 10 turnovers to fall behind, 28-22, by halftime. The Eagles made only one more shot than the Wolverines, but they made four more 3-pointers and six fewer turnovers, giving their senior-laden squad confidence going into the break. Zero Michigan players scored in double digits at the half, as sophomore guard Katelynn Flaherty led the Wolverines with six points on 30 percent shooting.
“They scout the heck out of you and I think that they know their personnel and make other people have to beat you,” Barnes Arico said. “They take away your top guys and they put everybody else in the paint and they make those other guys have to play to beat you. They block out, they give you one shot, and they get back in defensive transition.”
Michigan didn’t score in the first two minutes of the third quarter, turning the ball over two more times along the way before Ristovski knocked down a 3-pointer to get it going. But Florida Gulf Coast matched the shot with a triple of its own to push the lead to seven. The Eagles led by as much as 10 in the third quarter, but finished it leading by just two due to Ristovski's play. Putting the team on her back while the cold-shooting Flaherty was on the bench for the majority of the half, Ristovski dropped 12 points and dished out two assists in the third quarter to keep the Wolverines close while the rest of her team struggled.
The game stayed close deep into the fourth and, with just over three minutes left to go in regulation, Flaherty sank two free throws to cut the deficit to two again, 59-57. After a defensive stop, the Wolverines took the lead after Flaherty made her first 3-pointer of the game. But again, the Eagles battled back with another make from behind the arc. Florida Gulf Coast’s next possession ended with another 3-pointer that deflected off the rim and went in at the shot-clock buzzer to push the lead to five with a minute left. Only managing a pair of free throws down the stretch, Michigan was unable to climb back again.
The Wolverines saw their season end at the exact same point this year as they did last year — in the Final Four of the WNIT. And even with a desperate effort from Ristovski, the team once again fell short of hoisting its first banner at Crisler Center.