Through all the smiles and joy on the court Saturday afternoon, after the Michigan women’s basketball team won the WNIT, it would have been easy to forget where the team was nearly three weeks ago.
On that night, a night where they expected to break a three-year NCAA Tournament drought, the Wolverines had their hearts ripped out. Sitting at Revel and Roll bowling alley, the players watched, hopefully, as each region was revealed, with confidence that the team would soon hear its name called.
How sure did the team seem that it had earned a place in the field? As the final pairing in which the Wolverines would have fit was about to be announced, sophomore center Hallie Thome put on a wide smile, anticipating the good news. Instead, the names “Kansas State” and “Drake” came through the speakers. Her expression turned to shock.
Even after the best regular season in program history, Michigan would once again be relegated to the WNIT.
“The night we didn’t get into the NCAA’s I felt heartbroken for (seniors Danielle Williams and Siera Thompson),” said sophomore guard Nicole Munger. “But the next day in practice, we said we were doing it for them and we were winning it for them. This is for them.”
It would have been understandable if, given that heartbreak, Thome and the Wolverines hadn’t wanted to play at all in the WNIT. It’s possible that, in the immediate aftermath, they didn’t. It would have even been understandable if, after the NCAA selection committee doubted them, they started to doubt themselves. But after the way they played their final game, through three unprecedented championship overtimes, one thing was clear: they learned to embrace a tournament that they didn’t want, and they proved they would have belonged in the one that didn’t want them.
Looking back, maybe it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise that Michigan won the WNIT Final. It had already beaten its opponent, Georgia Tech, by a 40-point margin earlier this season in Atlanta. The Wolverines were probably the biggest snub from the Big Dance, and their talent made it easy enough to pencil them into the semifinals, where Barnes Arico had led them in each of the previous two seasons.
But there was something about a deep WNIT run that seemed less than inevitable.
In the WNIT, as with most tournaments, it takes more than talent to win it all. To win six straight games against teams of relatively comparable skill levels, no matter who is on your roster, takes will power. There’s little room for passivity.
And that’s where the uncertainty came in.
There is a reason the NIT and WNIT are so hard to predict. There is simply no telling how a team will respond to letdowns, no way to gauge whether a team will respond with motivation or resignation.
For the Michigan women’s basketball team, there must have been at least a fair share of each. The Wolverines knew they were one of the 64 best teams in the country — particularly considering they were ranked in the top 25 just weeks before the selection show — and that must have made them irate. It also could have made them feel defeated. All that hard work, all those wins, and they’re stuck in the same tournament they’ve been in both the previous two years? It’s not hard to see how that might have led to some passivity when the tournament began.
But whatever their immediate reaction, it was clear on Saturday afternoon that motivation eventually won out.
“They just wanted to prove the world that they had made a mistake and that Michigan basketball is a great team,” Barnes Arico said. “They refused to go away and it was just awesome to watch.”
It was only fitting, though, that there was one final test of will awaiting the Wolverines, even as they climbed through the tournament and ended up in the finals in nearby Detroit.
Trailing by three points with just 10 seconds remaining, junior guard Katelynn Flaherty hoisted up a prayer that, somehow, went answered to tie the game.
Then, the unthinkable. Thompson was called for a foul while contesting Georgia Tech forward Elo Edeferioka’s jump shot with 0.6 seconds remaining. Seldom, if ever do referees call foul in moments in like that, but the whistle blew. It looked like one more shocking outcome awaited the Wolverines.
Instead, Edeferioka missed both free throws. Michigan did nothing to influence that, and no amount of will could have induced those misses. But given another chance, the Wolverines fought like hell. The game went into overtime, and then it went into another, then another. No other WNIT Championship had ever even gone to overtime before Saturday, but this one just wouldn’t end.
By the third overtime, the Wolverines had apparently had enough of leaving matters to chance. They put away the game and took home a double-digit win in triple overtime. Margins don’t usually get that steep in games that require so much extra time. Fifty-five minute games are rare, and the games that do make it that long are usually so close that they come down to one or two small plays.
Overtime is often decided by free throws. Triple overtimes are decided by will.
And on Saturday, Michigan was the team that wouldn’t let go. The Wolverines won the game, stormed the court and won the tournament they hadn’t even wanted to be in three weeks ago.
There was no way to go back and reverse the selection committee’s decision, no way to unfeel the emotions they felt in that bowling alley almost three weeks prior.
Instead, they felt something new: vindication.
Daily sports editor Sylvanna Gross and staff writer Ethan Wolfe contributed reporting to this column.
Bultman can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @m_bultman. Please @ him.