The Michigan women’s basketball team started the season by raising a banner and ended it by earning a trip to the NCAA Tournament, where it fell to Baylor in the second round. The Wolverines won the Women’s National Invitational Tournament in 2017, but disappointment over being left out of the tournament field carried over to this season.
From the first day of this season, Michigan’s goal was to go dancing for the first time since 2013 — and it did. After tearing through the non-conference portion of the schedule — just losing to eventual champion Notre Dame and a Louisville team whose season ended in the Final Four — the Wolverines seemed to cement a tournament bid with a road win at then-No. 8 Ohio State on Jan. 16.
But Michigan went on to drop five of six games over the first two weeks of February, setting off alarm bells at Crisler Center. On Senior Night though, with the potential of missing the tournament hanging in the air, the Wolverines upset then-No. 13 Maryland, finishing the regular season 22-9 with a 10-6 mark in the Big Ten, good for sixth place in the conference. After exiting the Big Ten Tournament with a loss to Nebraska in the quarterfinals, Michigan was selected as a No. 7 seed for the NCAA Tournament. The Wolverines beat Northern Colorado in the first round, but ended their season quietly with a 22-point loss at Baylor in the second.
The Daily looks back on the season that was.
Best game: Michigan 84, Ohio State 75
The Wolverines came into Columbus without a signature win, having dropped an overtime heartbreaker to the Buckeyes nine days earlier in Ann Arbor. They left with their first win over Ohio State since 2015, ending a streak that lasted three years and five days.
After going into the half down five points, Michigan battled back. Junior center Hallie Thome scored 21 of her 27 points and grabbed 10 of her 11 rebounds in the second half. Senior guard Katelynn Flaherty put up 18 of her own in the latter period, including a go-ahead 3-pointer with two minutes to go in the third quarter. Unlike the prior contest against Ohio State, which saw Flaherty miss a potential game-winner at the buzzer, the Wolverines left nothing to chance. They outscored the Buckeyes by 14 in the second half, sealing a rivalry win and a resume booster.
Worst game: Purdue 81, Michigan 79 (OT)
This was well on its way to being an easy win. The Wolverines held a 16-point lead with just under seven minutes to go in the game. It would have been their seventh straight victory — a domineering performance over a conference foe — but Michigan simply collapsed, going without a point for the last 6:48 of regulation.
The Wolverines coughed up turnover after turnover. Flaherty had a chance to stop the bleeding with a layup once Michigan’s lead was cut to two. It was blocked away, then freshman forward Hailey Brown turned it over on the ensuing inbounds pass. Boilermakers’ guard Dominique Oden tied it at 72, hitting a baseline floater with just under one second to go. Sophomore forward Kayla Robbins managed to get to the line with a chance to win it, even after all that, but clanked both free throws. In overtime, the Wolverines were down one with just over a minute to go and couldn’t find a bucket.
It was as tough a loss as you could imagine — and it sent Michigan on a tailspin. It lost three of its next four — all games in which the Wolverines were ranked and their opponents were not — jeopardizing its chances at an NCAA Tournament bid.
Best individual performance: Katelynn Flaherty against Northwestern
When Flaherty got it going this season, it was truly mesmerizing to watch. She hit the 30-point mark three times — including a 33-point game against Penn State in which the senior hit 10 3-pointers — but even that comes in second.
When the Wildcats visited Crisler on Feb. 8, Flaherty almost singlehandedly demolished them. She scored 36 on 12-of-21 shooting, dropping 3-pointer after 3-pointer, finishing 9-of-16 from beyond the arc. It was a shooting performance for the ages, one of those nights when Flaherty was simply unstoppable. The Wolverines easily pulled away in the game, winning 84-63, but that almost became a sideshow in the face of the sheer absurdity of Flaherty.
To add onto what was already an incredible game, Flaherty sustained a foot injury mid-game. It didn’t slow her down though, as she scored 16 of her points in the second half, playing all 20 minutes of the latter period.
Flaherty is undoubtedly the best player in program history. This will go among her best games ever in a Michigan uniform.
Most important game: Michigan 71, Maryland 65
Though coach Kim Barnes Arico didn’t tell the team in the lead-up, the Wolverines’ season could have hinged on this game. They came in having lost five of the last six, their chances for a tournament bid having gone from set-in-stone to shaky. They needed an upset over the 13th-ranked Terrapins to put fears of repeating the heartbreak of 2017 to rest. And they got it.
Sophomore forward Akienreh Johnson, who had averaged just 2.5 points per game on the season up to that point, played the hero. She scored 17 points, including a dagger 3-pointer with just under two minutes left, on 8-of-11 shooting to go with eight rebounds.
To put it simply, it’s quite possible Michigan wouldn’t have made the tournament without winning that game, without that out-of-nowhere performance from Johnson. It needed to pull an upset win out of the sky to do it, and when the chance came, the Wolverines took it.
Most improved player: Hailey Brown
The freshman started her career quietly, hitting double-digit scoring just six times in the season’s first 17 games. She did so as many times in her next eight games, breaking out with a 23-point, eight-rebound performance on Jan. 10 against Indiana and sprinting through the rest of her season.
Brown was well on her way to establishing herself as a go-to scorer for the Wolverines at that point, but her season ended early. She suffered a leg injury at Michigan State just over a month after that breakout performance and never came back.
Despite a disappointing end to her season, Brown established herself as a potential star for the Wolverines come next year. Assuming a full recovery, her production will likely go up in the wake of Flaherty’s departure.
Most valuable player: Katelynn Flaherty
This one didn’t take much thinking. Flaherty came into the season with a chance to cement herself as an all-time great. She did that, and more, breezing past Diane Dietz for the program’s all-time scoring record early in the year before smashing Glen Rice’s men’s scoring record in January, becoming Michigan’s all-time leading scorer in either category.
Flaherty, to no one’s surprise, led the Wolverines in scoring with 22.9 points per game, shooting 44.3 percent from outside. Even when teams continually face-guarded her through Big Ten play, even when she suffered injuries to her back and foot, Flaherty continued to score at an absurd clip. More than that, she averaged 36.8 minutes per game, never sitting out a game, and played 40 or more minutes nine times.
Flaherty exits Michigan as the program’s best player ever, bar none. Unless there’s some sort of baffling oversight, she will become the first ever women’s basketball player to see her number retired — and with good reason.
The Wolverines will have to deal with the losses of Flaherty and senior forward Jillian Dunston, whose rebounding and defense helped anchor them throughout the year. In all likelihood, junior guard Nicole Munger will see an uptick in shot attempts as a result. Thome, Michigan’s second-leading scorer this season, will become even more important to the Wolverines’ success as well.
Freshman guard Deja Church will be expected to take over point-guard duties from Flaherty after a strong defensive campaign. Her offensive output — just seven points per game on 43.9 percent shooting from the field — will have to get better, though. Brown and Johnson — both of whom have been hampered by injury in the past — will be expected to put it all together.
Barnes Arico’s recruiting class — which ranks 12th in the country, per HoopGurlz — will be key in bringing Michigan back to the NCAA Tournament. Five-star point guard Amy Dilk could challenge Church for the starting job. Naz Hillmon and Emily Kiser, both four-star forwards, could see playing time along with fellow four-star guard Ariel Young.
Even with the Wolverines losing the program’s best ever player in Flaherty, they should be fairly optimistic about making it back to the tournament in 2019.