A few minutes before the Michigan women’s basketball team’s third-round WNIT matchup against St. John’s, reporters received an announcement that Wolverine freshman guard Kysre Gondrezick, a breakout star this year, is taking an indefinite leave of absence from the team. Gondrezick had been scoring 14.9 points per game on the season, and her absence left a void in the team’s offense.
Michigan decided to compensate by taking the ball to the paint almost exclusively in the first half, scoring 32 of its 60 points there by game’s end in a 60-40 win.
“At the half, it was good for us to keep encouraging the kids,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “They came in like they couldn’t get a shot off. We had to say, ‘If they’re over there, then penetrate the basket or push and wear them down.’ ”
St. John’s coach Joe Tartamella instructed his players to “stay vertical” when his players were defending in the paint. With the Red Storm keeping their arms up and not fouling, Michigan struggled scoring in the game’s beginning. St. John’s has held its opponents to just under 62 points per game on the season, giving the Wolverines a challenge in the scoring column.
Michigan managed just 10 points in the first quarter, just six of which came in the paint, and sophomore center Hallie Thome went 1-for-4 from the field. Without Thome’s post presence, the Wolverines had difficulty scoring in other areas, failing to make one 3-pointer while shooting below 20 percent from the field. The Red Storm led, 13-10.
“I think they’re very aggressive and it took me a moment to get used to it,” Thome said.
Thome readjusted and got to the basket with ease in the second quarter, scoring the team’s first four points. But Michigan’s guards had less success against the Red Storm interior defense, as St. John’s swatted three shots by the midpoint of the second quarter. Michigan started to gain some momentum at the same time after sophomore guard Nicole Munger rebounded an airball in the paint and put it back up to cut the deficit to one, 23-22. On the next Wolverine possession, senior guard Danielle Williams made a finger-roll layup while driving through the key to give Michigan its first lead of the game.
By halftime, Michigan had 20 points in the paint but still trailed 30-29. The Wolverines didn’t make either of their two attempted 3-pointers and scored seven from the charity stripe. That left just one made jump shot as Michigan shot 38 percent for the half.
“By the half, I think I only took one 3-point attempt,” said junior guard Katelynn Flaherty. “It was definitely different trying to take it to the basket.”
The first 3-pointer came in the first minute of the second half when senior guard Siera Thompson nailed one from the corner to tie the game at 32. Thome ran to the low block on a fast break a minute later to give Michigan a two-point lead. Thompson also got in on the defensive action of the game in the subsequent possession, recording the Wolverines’ first block of the game. The Red Storm followed suit, swatting another Thome hook shot for their seventh block of the game.
The rest of the third quarter continued to be a defensive struggle as Michigan made only one of its last seven shots while St. John’s made one of its last nine on a four-minute scoring drought. The Wolverines led 43-36 going into the fourth quarter.
Michigan began to pull away in the fourth quarter as it had a 12-point lead with just 6:10 remaining in the contest. Flaherty pushed the lead to 15 with her first triple of the game two minutes later to continue a 10-0 run for the Wolverines. She finished with 18, and Thome ended with 19 to help Michigan close out the game without Gondrezick.
It’s fitting that without their third-best scoring option, that the 1-2 punch of Flaherty and Thome would carry the load to lead the Wolverines to the WNIT Sweet 16 for the second year in a row.