On Sunday afternoon, the Michigan women’s basketball team trailed by nine points heading into the final quarter against Iowa. With an undefeated record at Crisler Center, it was the first real adversity the Wolverines had faced at home this season.
Someone needed to step up, and Michigan had no shortage of options. Junior guard Katelynn Flaherty — one of the nation’s most prolific 3-point shooters — was the primary suspect. If it wasn’t Flaherty, then the sure-handedness of sophomore center Hallie Thome, or the experience of senior guard Siera Thompson — who iced the game against Indiana with four final-minute free throws on Jan. 10 — could surely do it for the Wolverines, too.
But when Michigan looked ready to accept its fate, it was freshman guard Kysre Gondrezick who salvaged the game and sparked the Wolverines to an improbable 72-70 victory over the Hawkeyes.
The matchup against Iowa, compared to similar games that the Wolverines were in last season, proved something that Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico already knew: Without Gondrezick, Michigan wouldn’t be able to make big comebacks or sustain seemingly-comfortable leads. A glaring example is last season’s shocking loss to Eastern Michigan when the Eagles outscored the Wolverines 19-6 in the final quarter to eke out a one-point win and hamper Michigan’s tournament resume.
“Last year we didn’t come out on the winning side of these games,” Barnes Arico said. “It took everything we had (against Iowa). I think it is also a sign of the development of the program and the growth of the team. … In the past, if Katelynn Flaherty had an off night, we didn’t win the basketball game.”
In the final frame, with Flaherty struggling to score, Gondrezick wanted to put her coach’s sentiments to bed and disregard the stigma of the “freshman” label. The guard showed no signs of nerves, rallying for eight points, three boards and three steals — including one that was snatched from Iowa’s Ally Disterhoft and passed to Flaherty for an easy layup to give Michigan the lead with 47 seconds remaining. Despite some missed free throws down the stretch, they did not detract from the greater impact Gondrezick had on the game.
“I feel great all the time when I’m on the court,” Gondrezick said. “I was ready. As the game went on I got more comfortable. We were shaken up in the first half with the defenses they were throwing at us. It was something we hadn’t seen before. … Everyone had a tough day at the line. I’m just glad we were able to convert when it mattered.”
It is rare to find a freshman at the helm of a must-win situation, but Gondrezick’s demeanor demonstrated that she was exactly where she was supposed to be.
“I don’t even want to talk to her about next year or the following year because each year watching them as a coach is so different,” Barnes Arico said. “Freshman year, as much as it’s the hardest year and it’s a transition in so many ways, it’s also the easiest year in so many ways because there’s no pressure. Nobody knows who you are and you can come out and just be who you are.
“All of a sudden you’re a sophomore like Hallie Thome at the top of everyone’s scouting report. Then you’re a junior and you’re supposed to be one of the best players in the country [like] Katelynn Flaherty and you’re being face-guarded and people are holding your shirt and you’re like ‘Damn, I’m supposed to score 20 points because I’m supposed to be the best player in the country.’ Kysre doesn’t know any of that yet. She just goes out and plays and she’s so fun to watch.”
Gondrezick’s performance against the Hawkeyes was just one piece of a much larger effort that garnered her a fifth Big Ten Freshman of the Week honor, as she notched career-highs in points (23) and steals (6) in the contest after scoring 19 in her previous game at Illinois. She also shot 2-for-4 from beyond the arc, improving her 3-point field-percentage to .475, the fifth-best mark in the country.
Proof of the Wolverines’ improvement — and Gondrezick as a secret weapon — is no longer private. Michigan, sitting at 19-5 overall, is now getting national recognition after being ranked No. 21 in the Associated Press poll for the first time since week 12 of the 2012-13 season.
While Gondrezick herself has helped propel the team into the national spotlight, her presence has also distracted opposing teams and catalyzed greater productivity from her teammates, too.
This was especially apparent during the most important play against Iowa, when Gondrezick handled the ball at the top of the arc to space the floor, ultimately leaving the paint open for sophomore guard Nicole Munger to receive a swing pass in the corner, drive the baseline and score with 27 seconds left to seal the contest for the Wolverines. And that’s only one example.
Unless Michigan endures an epic collapse in its final six games, it finally looks poised to make — and compete — in the NCAA Tournament. It can largely thank Gondrezick for that.
Wolfe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ethanewolfe.