In spite of its loss to Baylor in the Sweet Sixteen, Michigan's historic tournament run is indicative of how far the program has come, and where it is going. Julia Schachinger/Daily. Buy this photo.

Kim Barnes Arico was sitting at the podium with tears in her eyes. Her voice was cracking and she was explaining what drove her here, to Michigan. In this moment, at least, she could have said anything, and you would have believed it.

At that moment, though, she was talking about winning championships.

“When everybody comes to play at the University of Michigan, their goal is to win a championship,” Barnes Arico said. “Most teams at the University of Michigan have won a championship. But the fact that Michigan women’s basketball hasn’t is what drew me here, what made me leave my life of 40 years, because I believed in Michigan and I believed that we could create something special.

“But it doesn’t matter what I believe. We need players in our program that believe the same thing, players that could have gone anywhere else in the country and chose Michigan because they believe that they could come here and they could make a difference. They believed that they could come here and they could win a championship.”

After Saturday, you’d be wrong not to believe that, too. The Michigan women’s basketball team’s season ended less than an hour before Barnes Arico said that, but the way it ended … 

Wow.

If you’re new to women’s basketball, let me explain something: Upsets don’t happen in women’s basketball. At least not anywhere near as often as on the men’s side. There’s a reason the same few programs — UConn, Baylor, South Carolina, Notre Dame — seem to win the championship every year. The gap between Michigan and Baylor, a 6-seed and a 2-seed, is supposed to be pretty big. The spread was 14 points in Saturday’s Sweet 16 game. 

But then the unexpected happened: Michigan started hanging around. 

Junior wing Leigha Brown started hitting shots. Baylor took a 12-point lead and threw it away and all of a sudden people who hadn’t watched a minute of this team’s season were getting to their TVs. And then senior Hailey Brown was throwing an entry pass over the head of a defender and Naz Hillmon was tying the game and the Wolverines were on the verge of the kind of win that gets talked about around here for years and years and years.

“We had them on the ropes,” Barnes Arico said. “I actually thought we had them for a period of time there.”

Barnes Arico has put in the work here. This was her ninth season. It took six until the Wolverines were a consistent NCAA Tournament presence. She took the job knowing it would be a process, and built the program up slowly, steadily, working toward a day like Saturday. 

“You go back and look through the records of Michigan women’s basketball,” she said, but then redirected the thought. To finish it: The records of Michigan women’s basketball are, arguably, the ugliest of any program at the school.

So to have these Wolverines where they were this weekend, headed into overtime with the defending national champions, keeping pace in a game that hung on a knife’s edge, with Michigan’s two best players in foul trouble, in a one-point game with 15 seconds left. It’s hard to overstate what that means.

It’s also hard to get around what happened next. The Wolverines were unable to foul for another seven seconds. Graduate guard Akienreh Johnson lost control of her dribble off the inbound and hoisted a half-court shot with four seconds left to try and avoid traveling. Somehow, it nearly went in. 

Another heave with one second remaining fell short. Baylor came out alive, 78-75, and left Michigan feeling like a once-in-a-decade opportunity slipped through its fingers.

That’s why Barnes Arico was sitting there with tears in her eyes, telling reporters about junior guard Danielle Rauch sitting in the locker room: “She said, ‘Man, I made a mistake here, man, I could have done this, man, what if I had done that, if I had that possession back.’ ”

Afterward, Barnes Arico said Baylor coach Kim Mulkey came up to her and complimented her team’s character.

“I never saw a team that played that hard, that played for each other, with fight, never quit,” Barnes Arico recalled her saying.

For a coach whose favorite cliche is that Michigan wants to be the “hardest working team in America,” that must have been one hell of a compliment. 

It’s also why Barnes Arico and the Wolverines will be able to get over this. It might feel like the sort of opportunity that may not come around again, but it will. This program is taking strides.

If they could do this in 2020-21, when COVID-19 forced them into multiple shutdowns, when Leigha Brown missed 39 days midseason, when center Izabel Varejão missed the entire season unable to get into the country until February, then you better believe they’ll be back.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever had a team like this,” Barnes Arico said. “I felt really good about ‘em. … You and everybody else out there that doubted us so many times, or we said disrespected us so many times, because we hadn’t played enough games or because we were shut down, on pause again, or because we had another student-athlete that was out with COVID. Pretty much we were thrown into every difficult situation all season long.

“If the rest of the country didn’t see that we’re one of the best basketball teams out there, I don’t know what you have to do to get that kind of respect.”

But all of that underscored something about this team, about this program. Something that you couldn’t say in the past — unless you were trying to speak it into existence. Something that’s now true.

“They’re winners,” Barnes Arico said. “They’re winners.”

Sears can be reached at searseth@umich.edu or on Twitter @ethan_sears.