It took the San Diego women’s basketball team two and a half minutes to score its first basket. By that point, though, it was already too late.
Behind an explosive first-half performance Tuesday night, Michigan jumped out to a 22-point lead at the break by outshooting, outrebounding and outhustling the Toreros. In the end, the Wolverines earned a 78-51 win and an entrance into the WNIT quarterfinals, where they’ll face either Ohio or Temple.
En route to the 27-point victory, Michigan showed that this year’s team — which is averaging 84.7 points in the postseason for the team’s fifth straight 20-win season, most wins at home (15) and most single-season assists (578) — may be best equipped to win a WNIT Championship.
With it, the program would hang its first banner.
“I was really happy with the way that we jumped on them,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “Our defense early on led to our offense. We pressured them, we made them feel uncomfortable and (we) were able to block out and get rebounds early and that led to some transition.”
That transition offense gave the Wolverines a quick 14-2 advantage, and their defense gave up just nine points in the first quarter. San Diego’s offense couldn’t generate anything without guard Malina Hood, whom junior guard Siera Thompson keyed in on right away.
Thompson dominated the one-on-one matchup, limiting Hood to five points and forcing her to commit three fouls in the first half, resulting in just 10 minutes of playing time.
“Having her out was critical to our success,” Barnes Arico said. “We did a great job of attacking her early on and setting the tone and really drawing fouls. That was the difference in the game.”
With the Toreros’ all-time leading scorer and 3-point shooter out of the picture early on, sophomore guard Katelynn Flaherty couldn’t be stopped for Michigan.
Flaherty, who finished with 24 points, bounced back from her slow start against Bucknell on Saturday and came out firing on all cylinders against San Diego. With three 3-pointers, Flaherty surpassed 100 on the season, becoming just the second Wolverine to do so and joining Kate Thompson, who hit 110 in 2012-13.
But it was Michigan’s impenetrable defense that fed into the offense’s success. The Wolverines outrebounded the Toreros, 25-14, on the defensive glass, minimizing San Diego’s second-chance opportunities. Sophomore forward Jillian Dunston, junior guard Danielle Williams and freshman center Hallie Thome combined for 16 boards, and the Toreros — whose tallest player is 6-foot-2 — didn’t stand a chance under the glass.
“We knew that they are pretty athletic and that they were gonna go after the board, and our block-outs were gonna be really important,” Barnes Arico said. “That was our number one goal today — to outrebound them. Rebounding was top on the list, and I thought we did a pretty good job of that.”
Late in the second half, though, Thome went up for a rebound and had her legs swept out from under her. She fell on her back, hit her head on the floor and took a minute to get up. After sinking two free throws, she came out for the rest of the game.
“It’s just scary when people fall that hard,” Flaherty said. “She’s OK, and I think she’s gotten a lot tougher this year in those situations and goes to get up and shake it off, so just I’m very proud of her.”
Luckily for Michigan, it had enough of a scoring cushion to play without her down the stretch. The explosive first half gave Michigan an overwhelming edge, making a San Diego comeback highly improbable. With 14 first-half points each, Flaherty and senior guard Madison Ristovski led the Wolverines to shoot 64 percent from the field and 80 percent beyond the arc in the first 20 minutes.
Better yet for Michigan, it was not only relentless for one half but for all 40 minutes — something the Wolverines struggled with in the beginning of the year but are now getting a grasp on in the postseason when it matters most.