After making the first Elite Eight in program history, Michigan came up just shy of a trip to the Final Four, falling to Louisville 62-50 in Wichita, Kansas. The Wolverines’ historic run was the last thing on their minds, however, because losing sucks. A lot.
“Well that sucks,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “That was stinky. 52-50, with the ball. I’m going to have nightmares about that for the next eight months until we play again.”
But let’s rewind to four months ago. On Dec. 2, Michigan made the trip to Louisville for its first real test of the season. The Wolverines committed 24 turnovers, shot 2-for-15 from 3-point range and were outrebounded 39-26. Unsurprisingly, Michigan got pummeled, 70-48.
In their first real test of the season, the Wolverines failed. After losing so spectacularly, they could have rolled over, given up or accepted they weren’t great. But they didn’t. Throughout the season, that’s been Michigan’s story. This team doesn’t quit.
“We haven’t made an excuse all year long,” Barnes Arico said. “And when one thing after another thing happened, there was never an excuse. It was like, ‘OK, coach, we’re going to get up and do what we can do and control what we can control and be ready to play the next day.’ That’s our culture. To answer your question, we’re going to get up.”
In the season opener, starting point guard Amy Dilk suffered an injury, and the Wolverines were forced into overtime by an inferior IUPUI squad. But Michigan won, and it went on to start the season 7-0 — all without Dilk. After losing to Louisville, Michigan went on to win its next seven matchups against ranked opponents. But adversity continued to strike.
A February snowstorm forced the Wolverines to cancel a trip to Illinois — an all but guaranteed win — that would’ve won them a share of the program’s first conference championship. Weeks later, Leigha Brown left the lineup with an injury. In her absence, Michigan dropped games against Michigan State, Northwestern and Iowa. Brown’s reacclimation to the lineup wasn’t seamless, and the Wolverines left the Big Ten Tournament early with a loss to Nebraska.
Nearly everything went wrong. Entering the tournament, Michigan was arguably playing its worst basketball of the season. But it didn’t matter. The Wolverines didn’t quit. Michigan marched through the bracket, earning a rematch against Louisville in the Elite Eight.
Michigan didn’t let December’s embarrassment affect them. The Wolverines gave the Cardinals a great game. Louisville is an elite basketball team, and Michigan came up just short, fighting until the final buzzer.
The contrast between March’s loss to Louisville and December’s loss to Louisville couldn’t be starker.
In December, Michigan was thoroughly outworked and outmaneuvered on the glass. One of the Wolverines’ biggest strengths was completely stifled. Fast forward to March, and Michigan won the rebound battle 36-30. The Wolverines capitalized on their biggest strength, and it almost paid off.
On a different night, Michigan could’ve won this game. The Wolverines still struggled against Louisville’s full-court press — turning the ball over 22 times. Adding to its offensive woes, Michigan shot a sub-par 34.8% from the field. If the Wolverines didn’t suffer multiple five minute field-goal droughts, scored in the final five minutes of play, or earned a few more possessions, they’d be in the Final Four.
Monday night, Michigan showed that it’s just as capable a basketball team as Louisville. Four months ago, that wasn’t the case.
“We are not the same team as we were in that December game,” Hillmon said. “We said it. We were thankful that that game happened so that we could make so many adjustments and turn our team around.”
The Wolverines evolved from a good Big Ten team to going toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the nation. In December, saying that Michigan would make the Elite Eight and almost beat Louisville would be crazy.
But here they are.