Senior guards Danielle Williams and Sierra Thompson, junior guards Jillian Dunston and Katelynn Flaherty and sophomore center Hallie Thome walked onto the court before tip-off, ready to push through a barrier that the Wolverines have faced before: the Women’s National Invitation Tournament semifinals.
The Michigan women’s basketball team (11-5 Big Ten, 26-9 overall) was in this exact position a year ago — and the year before that — making this the third-straight attempt at crossing over into the finals of the WNIT.
And finally, this year, they did just that — beating Villanova, 65-61.
“This is the third time we’ve been in the final four,” Dunston said. “So (the mentality) was more of determination than nervousness.
“It feels awesome. We felt like we’ve come so far, just to do the same thing again. It feels great what we actually got to accomplish. But we’re not done yet.”
The Wolverines hosted the Wildcats (11-7 Big East, 20-14 overall) at Crisler Center for the semifinal of the WNIT on Wednesday, where Michigan has gone 19-1 on the season.
In the first quarter, with a little over five minutes to go, the score stood locked at seven. Thompson had managed a 3-pointer and Thome and Flaherty had both secured layups. After bringing the ball downcourt, Thome stood underneath the basket struggling against a pair of Villanova post players — a position she typically finds herself in. Dunston swooped in and grabbed the ball from her teammate’s hands and quickly extended up, easily placing the ball in the hoop.
“It’s definitely frustrating,” Thome said, who finished with a team-high 22 points. “But I know my teammates are going to put me in a position to score, and if they’re not passing the ball, they’re packing the paint. I just got to trust my other teammates, like (Dunston).”
With 1:30 left to go in the opening quarter, Michigan was frustrated with the back-and-forth nature of play — neither team ever held more than a two-point advantage — but Flaherty changed that by stepping back and burying a deep three, pushing her team to a four-point lead.
To finish out the quarter, the Wolverines were having trouble creating space in the paint. With time ticking down and only one second left, Dunston again made a play for Michigan and took a jumpshot from the right of the post, beating the buzzer. The game entered the second quarter, 17-11.
The Wildcats responded with quick threes by guards Alex Louin and Adrianna Hahn. The duo was expected to make impressive 3-point shots entering the matchup, as it makes up the majority of the team’s backcourt. Freshman guard Kysre Gondrezick could have assisted in staving the duo off, but was still absent due to personal reasons.
Heading into halftime, Michigan and Villanova had each attempted 28 field goals, but the Wolverines held the slight edge — going 11-for-28 to Wildcats’ 10-for-28.
The second half started off with back-to-back deep 3-pointers by Villanova’s Hahn, tying the score at 32-32. In response, Michigan quickly posted six points, two each from Flaherty, Dunston and Thome.
Similar to Dunston’s buzzer-beater a period before, Thome managed a quick bucket just before the third quarter ended. The play left the Wolverines up, 48-36, after a quiet buildup of breakaway point accumulation. Michigan had held the Wildcats to four total points in the quarter, while the Wolverines went on a 16-point run.
“(Michigan coach Barnes Arico) just told us to have fun,” Dunston said. “She said ‘You got to do it now more than ever; there’s 20 minutes left,’ and that hit us all pretty hard.”
Villanova didn’t give up, though, and went on a 10-0 run in a 1:44 span within the first half of the final quarter. Michigan had given up its 15-point lead and was left leading by just five. The momentum was threatening to turn the into an awful reminder of its previous semifinal contests.
But Barnes Arico called a time out with 5:23 left between her and a possible WNIT Championship appearance.
The atmosphere at Crisler was tense. Nobody was ready to witness the third-straight year of Wolverine devastation. Nobody wanted to miss Michigan’s opportunity to show the NCAA Tournament selection committee exactly what its snub meant to the Wolverines.
“I think the NCAA selection committee made a mistake,” Barnes Arico said. “Hopefully we are showing them that they did.”
The rallying cry that the Wolverines have made their mantra is to do it for their seniors, Thompson and Williams. The latter, who has been referred to as the “mom” of the team even though she has not seen the minutes that Thompson has, made an impact on the defensive end of the game with some key rebounds.
“(Williams) has worked her butt off,” Thome said. “So, it’s definitely exciting to see … (she) has always put the team first, and is one of the best teammates you can have. To see all of her hard work pay off, and to see her able to play these minutes is just really exciting.
“It’s a great moment for Danielle, and I’m very proud of her.”
The final minutes of the game were touch-and-go, eventually leaving Michigan in the bonus. Thompson went 1-for-2 on her free throws, giving the Wolverines a 63-57 lead with 23.5 seconds left. Then she repeated the process, putting Michigan up, 64-61, with 11.1 seconds left.
Flaherty took the next bonus. She swished the first, but missed the second. It was 65-61 with seven seconds remaining.
Finally, a collective breath was let out by the crowd. Villanova couldn’t overcome the gap.
The clock hit zero. the Wolverines had finally done it. Michigan was in the WNIT finals.