The best season in Michigan women’s basketball’s recent history ended rather quietly.
A trip to Waco, Texas, an 80-58 loss to No. 2 seed Baylor, a sad walk off the court. Quick, easy and quiet — the type of finish you don’t remember so much as the way they got there in the first place.
The Wolverines were destroyed by an onslaught of turnovers — 19 to be exact — enough to crush any chance of a historic upset. Though senior guard Katelynn Flaherty and junior center Hallie Thome dropped a combined 40 points with the former shooting 6-of-14 from beyond the arc and the latter dominating the low post early on, Michigan struggled to gain traction anywhere else.
Sophomore forward Akienreh Johnson — whose scoring helped get the Wolverines into the NCAA Tournament — was held to just six points and junior guard Nicole Munger had just two to her name. Baylor dominated the boards, outrebounding Michigan by 20 thanks to an 18-point, 16-rebound performance from Lauren Cox. Add all of that to the Wolverines’ turnovers and walking out of Ferrell Center with a win became nearly impossible.
“Sometimes I think we just see people and we try to get it to them quick and Baylor’s — their guards are super fast,” Flaherty said. “I think we had to get adjusted to the game. We made some turnovers and I think we got a little bit tight and made some more.”
Give Michigan credit for keeping the game close as long as it did. The Wolverines went into a hostile environment against a team that has lost just once all year and stayed within single digits through the first half.
After Baylor started out on a 7-2 run to open the game, it seemed the affair could get out of hand sooner rather than later. Instead, two straight 3-pointers from Flaherty put Michigan back in front — and jolted the Wolverines into a run of their own. When Flaherty’s next triple came, it put Michigan up by five with just over two minutes to go in the first.
The Wolverines’ night only went downhill from there.
The Bears took off on a 13-0 run immediately after, punctuating the display with a Juicy Landrum 3-pointer. Though the Wolverines managed to stay within a reasonable margin for the rest of the half — even cutting the deficit to three with two minutes to go in the second after a layup from freshman guard Deja Church — the game was as good as over.
Michigan’s best shot had come and gone. Even after pulling it back, the Wolverines went into the break down 42-34, a decisive margin against a team like Baylor.
Though the Wolverines hung around until midway through the third, a second 13-0 run from the Bears broke the dam. When Kalani Brown got a driving layup to fall with just over two minutes to go in the quarter, extending Baylor’s lead to 57-41, that was all she wrote for Michigan.
“They wore us down for sure,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “No question about it. I thought we battled and hung tough and really fought and really tried to rebound in the first half and I thought they really wore us down physically (in the second).”
Neither Flaherty nor Thome — who had carried the offense earlier on — could find a rhythm. The two shot a combined 4-of-18 in the second half. Kalani Brown turned her defense of Thome up a notch, and Baylor packed the paint to prevent her from going to spin moves. That was enough to keep her quiet.
When Flaherty exited the game — walking off the court for the last time with 34.7 seconds to go in the game — Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico embraced her, told her she loved her and thanked her for everything. The two were first connected via Barnes Arico’s husband, who saw Flaherty playing on a New Jersey blacktop as a child and relayed news of her to his wife, still a ways off coaching from the Wolverines.
When she got to Ann Arbor, Barnes Arico recruited Flaherty and built her program around the Point Pleasant, N.J. native. The last four years have constituted her reward for doing so.
“I made the best decision coming to Michigan, I would never change that,” Flaherty said, her voice cracking. “I mean I love my coach, I love Hallie — sorry — and my teammates. It’s a great school, I couldn’t do it without them.”
For senior forward Jillian Dunston, who rallied the Wolverines to a WNIT championship last season, whose defense and rebounding have buoyed the Wolverines all year, who does all the little things as well as Barnes Arico could ask, the emotion was less palpable.
“It was kinda sad, but I mean you kind of reflect, in that little bit of 10 seconds (walking off the court), of how great — I don’t know, Katelynn and I did a lot of good things,” Dunston said. “It’s sad that we lost, but I think our overall careers have been incredible.”
Now, their journey is complete. The ultimate goal — a NCAA Tournament berth — has been met, and exceeded with a first-round win over Northern Colorado on Friday.
The end it turned out, was a mere formality.