Despite never having played in the NCAA Tournament, senior forward Jillian Dunston is confident in the Michigan women’s basketball team’s chances in March Madness.
She said as much this past Wednesday, with a declaration: “We’re not afraid of any team.”
And why would they be?
Under Dunston’s leadership, the Wolverines have amassed a 22-9 overall record, including marquee wins over Marquette, Nebraska, Ohio State and Maryland — all of which are also slated to compete in the Big Dance. She’s coming off a strong regular season, where she was one of the top rebounders in the Big Ten with an average of 9.1 per game.
She serves as a much-needed supplement to her fellow classmate — guard Katelynn Flaherty — who is one of the best scorers in the country.
But while her buoyancy could be warranted, it could also simply be ignorance.
Michigan is surely a very good basketball team. But how they compare to the nation’s elite is still to be determined.
They do hold wins over ranked conference foes in then-No. 8 Buckeyes and then-No. 13 Terrapins. However, the Wolverines were routed in their two games against ranked non-conference opponents — then-No. 5 Louisville and then-No. 3 Notre Dame. Though those games were early in the season, they weren’t even close, as Michigan was outscored by a combined 45 points. And, as impressive as its Big Ten wins were, conference games always possess an element of unpredictability that should be accounted for.
If the Wolverines do get past 10th-seeded Northern Colorado on Friday, they have a lofty task ahead of them in Baylor. The Lady Bears (31-1) are a two seed as the No. 2 team in the country. They possess the second-best offense in the nation, scoring 86.6 points per game. For comparison, Michigan ranks 35th and averages 75.5.
Let’s face it, the Wolverines’ chances are far from ideal.
But they have come a long way. They are the first Michigan team to make the tournament since 2013. They have also secured wins over rivals Ohio State and Michigan State.
And the seniors — Dunston and Flaherty — have come the furthest in their four years in Ann Arbor. The tournament is a chance for them to show off just how good they really are.
“For them to be on the national scene, they’ve established themselves as two of the best players in the country,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “For the rest of the world to have an opportunity to see Katelynn Flaherty I think is really important. She’s been really special for us and it’s going to great for her to be playing in front of national television.”
The senior duo has certainly left its mark.
Including postseason play, the two have amassed 91 wins at Michigan. And while it’s the lesser of the two tournaments, the pair helped the Wolverines raise their first-ever banner in Crisler Center with a 2017 WNIT Championship. Now, they have qualified for the NCAA Tournament.
“(The Tournament) was our main goal,” Dunston said. “And now that we’ve gotten there, we don’t want to just show up. We just want to continue to take care of business.”
On an individual level, Flaherty will leave Michigan the program’s all-time leading scorer in her four years as a starter. As for Dunston, she has been the outspoken leader for the Wolverines for the past two seasons. She also has the third-most rebounds and 11th-most steals in Michigan history.
And most of all, the two have now accomplished a lifelong ambition.
“We’ve worked so hard to get to this point,” Flaherty said. “I know it’s been both of our dreams since we were young girls to go to college and play in the NCAA Tournament. So to finally make it here our last year is really exciting.”
Sharf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.