The Michigan women’s basketball team overcame many hardships this season, despite having the most successful year in the program’s history. The Wolverines totaled 28 wins, smashing their record for victories in a season by six. They also finished in third place in the Big Ten — their best finish since the 2010-11 season.
Regardless of Michigan’s success, the selection committee opted to leave the Wolverines out of the NCAA Tournament, much to the team’s surprise. Michigan (11-5 Big Ten, 28-9 overall), however, responded in the best way possible by finishing its season with six straight wins to claim its first-ever tournament championship.
The Daily recaps the highlights and lowlights of the 2016-17 season.
Best game: WNIT Championship — Michigan 89, Georgia Tech 79
The most important game also happened to be the best game of the year. Down six points in the final 1:23 of regulation of the WNIT championship against the Yellow Jackets, the Wolverines clawed their way back to an improbable victory. Michigan can thank junior guard Katelynn Flaherty for that, as she hit two triples in those final 83 seconds to tie the game. It can also thank divine intervention, as Georgia Tech missed two free throws with 0.6 seconds left to send the game to overtime.
The Wolverines and Yellow Jackets battled back and forth in the extra periods, until Michigan finally broke away in the third overtime to give the Wolverines their first banner to hang in Crisler Center.
Worst game: Michigan State 86, Michigan 68
All signs pointed toward a Wolverine victory headed into their in-state rivalry game with the Spartans on Feb. 19. Michigan was 21-6 entering the contest — 13-0 at home — and prepared for its biggest home crowd ever for its “break the attendance record” game.
The Wolverines accomplished the feat with an attendance of 12,707, but suffered their second-worst defeat of the season. While Michigan lost the previous game to Indiana in Bloomington, its first and only home loss to Michigan State exposed a lot of the Wolverines’ flaws and marked their descent out of the Associated Press top-25 poll and eventually the NCAA Tournament.
Best individual performance: Katelynn Flaherty in the WNIT
The junior guard’s scoring prowess — Flaherty averaged 20.2 points per game this season — is a mainstay for Michigan, making her appearance in this category unsurprising. Even on the biggest stage she has ever played on, Flaherty still managed to shine on offense with 21.3 points per contest in the six WNIT games.
Her biggest impact came in the WNIT championship, though. Flaherty didn’t make any of her first-quarter field goal attempts, but rebounded strongly with those two game-tying 3-pointers and 27 total points to re-energize her team.
Most important game: Penn State 76, Michigan 75
Even with losses down the stretch to Indiana and Michigan State, the Wolverines still appeared to be a lock for the Tournament before their regular season finale against the Nittany Lions. But tied at 75 with five seconds remaining, a shooting foul committed by sophomore center Hallie Thome put Penn State on the free throw line. The Nittany Lions only hit one of two attempts, but it was all they needed to top Michigan and seemingly seal the Wolverines’ fate out of the Big Dance, as they lost three of their final four Big Ten contests.
Most improved player: Jillian Dunston
The junior forward, who started just nine games and played 19.6 minutes per game in the 2015-16 season, started all 37 games for Michigan this season and bumped her playing time up to 28.9 minutes per game. Her point total increased marginally from 4.4 to 5.8 points per game, but her efforts on the glass — 7.7 rebounds a game — were the best on the team. Dunston’s most valuable contribution, though, has been her newfound role as the Wolverines’ emotional leader. She is often the most animated player on the court, and has become a vocal representative for Michigan during games. According to Flaherty, Dunston even guaranteed a 10-point win during a team huddle before the third overtime of the WNIT championship.
Most valuable player: Hallie Thome
It wouldn’t be wrong to put Katelynn Flaherty here as WNIT MVP and first team All-Big Ten honoree, but the Wolverines relied most heavily on Thome, their best frontcourt big. The sophomore center averaged 16.2 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, and had her second consecutive season in the nation’s top-10 for field goal percentage at 61.3. Thome was also a first team All-Big Ten honoree.
Thome’s achilles’ heel — foul trouble — also makes her Michigan’s most valuable player. In seven of the Wolverines’ nine losses, Thome either had four fouls or fouled out, and had three fouls in the other two. With Thome off the court, it was exponentially harder for Michigan to win, a conviction that came to fruition.
Michigan coach and Big Ten Coach of the Year Kim Barnes Arico will begin her sixth season at the helm in 2017-18, but will have a different coaching staff behind her for the first time in three years. Assistant coach Megan Duffy will be leaving the program after accepting a head coaching position at Miami (OH).
The Wolverines will also face a number of shakeups on their roster, resulting in many questions. The status of freshman guard Kysre Gondrezick, who sat out most of the WNIT for undisclosed personal reasons, remains unknown. Redshirt junior Abby Cole, who transitioned onto the team after a four-year volleyball career, sat out this season in order to rehab from a nagging injury and acclimate to the college game. Cole’s availability and role next season also remains to be seen.
Filling the leadership and playing void left by departing seniors Danielle Williams and Siera Thompson — both two-year captains — will perhaps be the hardest obstacle for Michigan to overcome. Freshmen KeAsja Peace and Akienreh Johnson, who battled injury much of the season, found sparse playing time. Kayla Robbins, though, became a forceful frontcourt player for the Wolverines, even managing playing time in late-game, close contests late in the season. Incoming recruits Hailey Brown and Michigan Miss Basketball candidate Deja Church could see legitimate playing time next year, and the Wolverines recently added Priscilla Smeenge to their 2021 class on Monday after she decommitted from Florida.