DETROIT — With 1:09 left on the clock in the second quarter of the Women’s National Invitational Tournament championship game, junior guard Katelynn Flaherty laid on the baseline in the defensive zone wrestling to get Georgia Tech’s leading scorer, Zaire O’Neil, off of her.
Then O’Neil elbowed her in the face.
Flaherty’s jaw dropped in shock and she looked over at Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico, who watched furiously from the sidelines. Flaherty pulled herself up and jogged down the court shaking her head to catch up with the play. As she cut across the top of the arc, O’Neil guarded her closely.
Flaherty had enough. She lowered her shoulder and knocked into O’Neil, who let herself fall and skid back several feet.
Flaherty earned her second foul, but didn’t look remorseful. She was having a tough time. The normally 20-point scorer had just seven points, and missed every field goal attempt in the first quarter. By the second quarter, the Yellow Jackets’ pep band was chanting “airball” every time Flaherty was in a scoring position, after two of her first shots fell short of the net.
“I was just frustrated at that point,” Flaherty said. “My shots really weren’t falling and then I had a stupid foul on the way back. After that my team talked to me and I kind of just settled down and that helped me get back into the flow of the game.”
Still, Flaherty found a different way to contribute for the Wolverines in her work from the free-throw line. She drew as many fouls as she could, and her strategy started working. She shot 7-for-9 from the charity stripe, earning more attempts than anyone on either team. She avoided attempting 3-point tries in favor of driving down low and drawing fouls, and attempted just two field goals in the entire third quarter.
But with 5:08 left on the clock in the fourth quarter, the Wolverines trailed by four points and it was time to shoot again. Flaherty aimed from the arc and missed her first attempt, but after a hard-fought rebound by senior guard Danielle Williams, Flaherty was blessed with a second shot from the same location. This time it went in.
Flaherty’s confidence was back, and when Michigan was back in offensive range 30 seconds later, she shot from beyond the arc and scored again. Despite her earlier shooting difficulties, Flaherty was tied with sophomore forward Hallie Thome for a team-high 19 points.
Despite Flaherty’s success, the Wolverines still trailed by one. Georgia Tech seemed an unstoppable force in the paint, while Michigan struggled to finish its shots. The deficit grew to five with just over a minute left, and a win looked improbable.
But Flaherty still had a few tricks up her sleeve. With 1:06 on the clock, she launched a shot from several feet outside the arc, and it sunk through the netting. Just three points differentiated the Wolverines and the Yellow Jackets.
Then, with 10 seconds left, Flaherty did it again.
“How crazy of Kate,” said sophomore guard Nicole Munger. “That one three was NBA range, amazing shot, hand in her face. And then it was just like, ‘Wow, we’re alive.’ She kept us afloat. She kept us alive. And all we kept saying was just get to overtime, just get to overtime.”
Georgia Tech was not able to capitalize on its last-second free throws that could have given the Yellow Jackets a victory, and Flaherty found herself playing another five minutes.
“It was a big relief,” said senior guard Siera Thompson. “(Flaherty) is a great player. She loves taking big shots and we want her to take all the big shots. She delivers every time. We have all the faith in Katelynn Flaherty, and I’m so happy she hit those shots tonight.”
But in overtime, Flaherty missed her first 3-point attempt. Then she missed a layup, and then another. Yet sophomore forward Hallie Thome had picked up a layup, and senior Danielle Williams made a free throw, tying the single 3-pointer made by the Yellow Jackets. Flaherty had done her job and put her team in a position to take the game over.
The Wolverines went into double overtime, where Flaherty earned her last 2 points, helping to keep the score tied and send Michigan into its third overtime. The tired Wolverines outlasted Georgia Tech, scoring 13 points in the final overtime to finally take home the WNIT championship.
Without Flaherty, Michigan could not have earned it’s first ever banner — so it was no surprise when she was named tournament MVP.
“It’s indescribable,” Flaherty said. “I can’t put it into words right now. … We just really wanted to be successful this season. We faced a lot of adversity and had so many setbacks, so it’s incredible to end the season on a win.”