When Nicole Munger nailed a 3-pointer to put Michigan up by nine near the midway point of the third quarter last Wednesday at Minnesota, the collective stress of the program seemed to be dissolving.
A win over the Golden Gophers would have broken a stretch of three losses in four games — all of them games the Wolverines were supposed to win. A win would have assured, once and for all, that the No. 23 Michigan women’s basketball team would be in the NCAA Tournament, no doubt about it. A win would have gotten the Wolverines out of their funk just in time for a contest against Maryland — the tenth-ranked team in the country — and the Big Ten Tournament.
Instead, over the next four minutes, a nine-point lead turned into a one-point deficit.
Michigan played tug of war with Minnesota over the ensuing minutes, then fell to the ground as the Golden Gophers pulled the rope away.
That night, the team’s flight got cancelled due to fog and bad visibility. The next day, the Wolverines managed to get off the ground, then were diverted to Cincinnati. There, they sat for three hours with nothing to do but think, before mercifully being given the go-ahead to come back home.
“It’s super-frustrating and I think, you know, we’ve been trying to stay really positive,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico told WTKA on Wednesday. “Because of, you know, where we are — like, we talked about, we’re a little tired. We’re the only team that really hasn’t had the bye going into the stretch and I think that schedule has been a little bit tougher than anyone else’s.”
If a lack of rest has been the issue before, it won’t be now. The Wolverines don’t play again until Thursday, their last regular season game before another week-long break leading into the Big Ten Tournament. That might be enough time for freshman forward Hailey Brown to recover from the leg injury that kept her out Wednesday. It will certainly be enough time for the rest of the team to recover physically and do some reflecting.
Michigan is facing its own basketball mortality — a battle it lost last season and seems to be losing now. Thanks to the relative strength of the Big Ten and a resume-boosting win at Ohio State, the Wolverines will still probably make the NCAA Tournament. Probably, of course, being the operative word.
It’s never good to be falling back on the strength of a league to explain why one team from said league deserves to make it. It’s never good to be throwing around qualifiers like “probably” when discussing what, just two weeks ago, was a certainty. It’s never good to be talking about how the schedule is harder for you than anybody else in the same league, all of the teams in which have to play the same number of games in the same number of days.
Then again, it’s never good to have lost four of five when you have a number next to your name and the other team doesn’t.
Michigan is in the type of spot that defines careers — and defines a program. And it has all the time in the world to think about what happens next.
Beating the Terrapins isn’t everything — the Wolverines would probably (there’s that word again) be fine if they lost, provided they won their first Big Ten Tournament game. Even if they lose them both, ESPN Bracketologist Charlie Creme told the Detroit News last week that it would take blowout losses to endanger their spot.
Of course, his opinion is just that — an opinion — and though it’s certainly a well-informed opinion, that doesn’t mean the selection committee will agree. It’s just another way of saying probably.
Winning a game isn’t an unreasonable ask. Michigan will have at least two chances to do so; one of them will be against an inferior team.
But the Wolverines, mind you, were near the top-10 just a couple weeks ago. Given the talent on the roster, they shouldn’t be happy with just making the first round of the Tournament, even if that’s how they’ll be judged.
Right now though, eliminating the word “probably” should be Michigan’s only goal. It has all week to figure out how to accomplish it.
Sears can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @ethan_sears