When the Michigan women’s basketball team lost to then-No. 17 Michigan State on Feb. 3, the Wolverines’ postseason path became fuzzier. Sitting below .500 in conference play, it was possible Michigan could finish as one of the bottom four teams in the Big Ten and would need compete in a play-in game to qualify for the conference tournament.
The Wolverines needed a bounceback, and luckily for them, they got it four days later with a victory against Illinois at Crisler Center.
It was the beginning of a seven-game stretch to close out Michigan’s regular season, one that would give a glimpse into what sort of damage the Wolverines could deal in the postseason. Every game in that schedule was a must-win.
But even if Michigan couldn’t entirely sweep the final stretch, sophomore guard Katelynn Flaherty knew the implications of at least having a strong and meaningful finish.
“I think we really could win the Big Ten Tournament,” Flaherty said after beating the Fighting Illini, “and I think it’ll come down to if we go in there with momentum.”
Almost a month after that statement, the Wolverines (9-8 Big Ten, 17-11 overall) are fifth in the conference standings, have won five out of their last six games and have only one game left against Rutgers before heading to Indianapolis for the conference tournament next week.
Michigan is certainly riding a high wave of momentum with its only loss in the last month coming at No. 6 Maryland on Feb. 17, but even that game was a tight contest. The Wolverines’ hard-hitting defense put them in the lead for most of the game against a frantic Terrapin squad, and it was just down the stretch that the game slipped away.
As for Michigan’s top two scorers, Flaherty and freshman center Hallie Thome have been making huge strides this season to get the Wolverines in a position to win.
Flaherty has six 30-plus point games, and Thome has continued to be an effective rebounder under the glass — most recently helping Michigan to a 70-65 victory at Northwestern.
But when Flaherty and Thome are on top of their game, it doesn’t always guarantee a win for the Wolverines. Instead, Michigan’s ideal output is a balanced attack. The other big impact players have been junior guard Siera Thompson and sophomore forward Jillian Dunston, who lead the team in assists and rebounds, respectively.
For Michigan to continue the momentum that could carry it far into the Big Ten Tournament, that balanced team effort is going to need to be on display Sunday to pull off a victory at Rutgers, which would nicely cap off the Wolverines’ regular season going 6-for-7.
Though the Scarlet Knights, led by C. Vivian Stringer in her 21st season in Piscataway, gave Michigan a headache last season by sweeping the two-game series, they are unranked this time around and sit below the Wolverines in the conference.
In the two teams’ only meeting this season, Rutgers (7-10, 16-13) could pack quite the punch for Michigan. Guard Tyler Scaife and forward Kahleah Copper are averaging a team-leading 17.2 and 17 points, respectively.
Sunday’s game may ultimately be decided by which team rebounds the ball better. Copper and center Rachel Hollivay have combined for 14.3 rebounds per game this year, compared to Thome and Dunston’s 11.2. The paint will be a war zone — a battle that the Wolverines can’t afford to lose.
With a win Sunday, Michigan could rest easy knowing it finished off the season in a respectable fashion. Next Thursday, the Wolverines will begin play at the Big Ten Tournament, where a deep run could put Michigan on the bubble for its first NCAA Tournament appearance in three years.
If not the Big Dance, the Wolverines would have another chance at earning a WNIT title, which they almost seized last season.
Sunday represents a crossroads for Michigan: lose and some of the Wolverines’ hard-earned momentum could vanish; win and they could see more than only one game next weekend.