In the most suspenseful 34 seconds of the season, the ball bounced just the right way for the Michigan women’s basketball team.
With 34 seconds left on the clock, the Wolverines trailed Temple by only one point. Michigan needed a pinch of luck, along with the execution of every intangible element of the game that Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico has hammered into the players’ minds all season — rebound the ball, be scrappy, get your teammates open and score.
With 34 seconds to determine the Wolverines’ season, the referee handed junior guard Siera Thompson the ball. After Michigan put a dismal nine-point first quarter behind it and chipped away at a 15-point deficit, it was fitting that one of the team’s captains would inbound the ball.
After slapping the ball with her left hand, Thompson looked toward her four teammates, deciding which one had the best chance to save Michigan’s season and send it to the WNIT semifinals. That’s when she saw sophomore guard Katelynn Flaherty cut from inside the paint to the outside of the perimeter, primed and ready to shoot.
Thompson threw the ball toward Flaherty, and that’s when the mayhem began.
Throughout the 2015-16 season, the Wolverines could always count on Flaherty to give them a fighting chance.
The All-Big Ten First Team member ended the regular-season as the second-fastest player in program history to reach 1,000 career points while averaging 22.6 points per game — earning her a spot on the WCBA All-Region 4 team and a likely All-American honorable mention.
But in the opening half against Temple, Flaherty’s shooting woes combined with an overall weak offensive effort, and Michigan’s season hung by a thread. It looked like the Wolverines, down 15 points, might not come back.
Sometimes, Flaherty just needs time to find her shot. Once she did against Temple, she dropped 16 third-quarter points.
“At half, I didn’t want this to be the last game, and I knew I had to step up and score,” she said. “That’s kind of the main thing I do for this team. … Everything just clicked, and everything just fell.”
The most important shot that fell was Flaherty’s long-range 2-pointer at the third-quarter buzzer, tying the game at 60.
“Honestly it felt short,” Flaherty said, “so it was kind of surprising that it went in. It really changed the momentum for us. It kinda put us back to think, ‘We’re definitely going to win this game.’ ”
Back to Thompson’s inbound pass to Flaherty, who was guarded by Temple’s Alliya Butts. Time was ticking — 33.2 seconds on the game clock, 13 on the shot clock. There was little chance she would throw up the perfect shot.
The thing is, this final offensive play was meant for one person only: senior guard Madison Ristovski.
Barnes Arico had drawn up the isolation play during the media timeout beforehand, and she wanted Ristovski to score. Win or lose, it would be her last game at Crisler Center, and she had the chance to make it a memorable one.
Flaherty brought the ball up top and passed to Ristovski.
Ristovski is one of the most successful players in Michigan history with a program-record 136 games played and 817 career points.
But the extra practices and games of the 2016 postseason aren’t to build her resume just a little more or set another record. The purpose is to wear her No. 1 Michigan uniform as long as possible and do it on the way to a WNIT championship.
The Wolverines lost to UCLA by four points in the 2015 WNIT semifinal, but the extra postseason experience — even in defeat — set Ristovski up for this year’s run. Ristovski has led a battle-tested Michigan all year, which found resolve against Iowa on Jan. 7 with a 17-point comeback. At halftime against Temple, the Wolverines brought attention back to that particular turnaround.
“Being in moments like that throughout the regular season is helping us now, because we have been there, we have done it and we have won before,” Ristovski said. “That maturity is gonna lead us into winning bigger games.”
On the verge of now having one more shot at a WNIT championship, Ristovski is laying it all on the floor. She has already beaten her previous 2015-16 season high of 15 points twice in the last three games — 16 points against Bucknell and 19 against Temple on Sunday.
Ristovski has also led the team in rebounds in two of the four last games, most recently grabbing nine boards against Temple to flirt with a double-double.
“She’s carried this team in the WNIT the whole run,” Barnes Arico said. “Her experience has showed through this entire tournament. … Her teammates feel that sense of urgency, so it’s more about her presence than anything else and the way that she’s playing.”
That’s why she dialed Ristovski on the final offensive possession of the game.
“This can’t be my last game. This can’t be my last game. This can’t be my last game.”
This thought ran in Ristovski’s mind as she received the pass from Flaherty and looked to the basket — no open look with guard Feyonda Fitzgerald on her.
That’s when she saw freshman center Hallie Thome on the edge of the paint with both arms raised, ready to take the ball and make a run toward the basket.
Three seconds on the shot clock: Ristovski lobbed the ball over her defender to Thome, who dribbled once, faked right, turned left and jumped.
At the beginning of the season, Barnes Arico said she wasn’t used to coaching 6-foot-5 players, making newcomer Thome a challenge. There was also the issue of bringing Thome’s physicality up to speed, as she would need to be Michigan’s top post player by the time Big Ten season rolled around.
When it did, though, Thome had no problem being a threat down low.
As the team’s second-leading rebounder at 5.4 per game, Thome is fitting in nicely at the collegiate level. She capped off the regular season by being named to the All-Big Ten Freshman Team.
But her name hasn’t just been heard at the conference level. She ranks No. 2 in the country with a .665 field-goal percentage, and with two more possible games to play, she may take over the top spot by week’s end.
But that was a distant thought during the first half against Temple. Thome had trouble scoring from the inside, she couldn’t grab any defensive rebounds and she had three fouls by halftime.
In the six second-half minutes she played, she scored eight more points and collected five more boards.
But two of those points and two of those rebounds mattered more than the rest.
The shot clock turned off as the ball bounced around the rim three times. On the fourth, it fell toward the hardwood and both benches went silent. Then came Ristovski with the rebound, and she kicked it out to Thompson, who launched a 3-pointer.
No good — 17.5 seconds left.
The ball bounced back into the hands of Ristovski — it represented the end of her season, and she wasn’t going to let Temple take it away from her.
When she looked into the eyes of the defense, Ristovski said she saw fear. She saw a team exasperated over giving up a 15-point lead, a team that was on the ropes, a team that the majority of Crisler Center was cheering against.
To Ristovski, it felt like the team and the fans were suffocating Temple.
Ristovski tried to drive inside, but couldn’t find an open lane to the glass. Instead, she passed to Williams on the perimeter who heaved a triple.
What made losing to UCLA last season in the WNIT semifinal even worse was the fact that Williams had to face her twin sister, Dominique. Then the Bruins came to Crisler this season and handed the Wolverines another loss.
Last season’s WNIT run had at least one positive thing come out of it.
“It has prepared us to want to go further and do bigger and better things,” Williams said.
This year, the bigger thing is to win the whole thing.
Williams doesn’t wow spectators with the number of baskets she can score. Instead, her defensive prowess and ability to execute the intangibles make the difference.
With five seconds to go against Temple, Fitzgerald drove into the paint for a layup, but Williams had already planted her feet. As the ref called the charge and the ball rolled around the rim, Dunston looked down at Williams, grabbed her by the collar, pulled her off the ground and started shaking her.
“Let’s go!” Dunston screamed.
But Williams pointed to the shot clock at the other end of the court.
“Four seconds! Four seconds! Four seconds!” Williams exclaimed.
It was the first of two defensive stops Michigan needed to make in the final 10 seconds, but it would’ve made little difference if not for the moments before.
Williams’ 3-pointer was no good — 11.9 seconds left.
Thome grabbed the fourth offensive rebound of that possession and instantly went for a jumper. Another miss — 10 seconds left — but Thome got past her defender to grab the team’s fifth rebound of the possession.
She jumped one last time, putting the shot up with only her left hand as she flew sideways, and the ball banked off the glass and into the basket.
Michigan 77, Temple 76.
Crisler Center had never been louder all season than in that moment.
It took six shots, five rebounds and countless shrieks from the crowd, but Thome’s basket and Williams’ aforementioned charge led to Michigan’s final defensive stop that earned it a one-point victory.
“We needed to be able to make one play, and we kept going after it,” Barnes Arico said. “We talk about how young our team is, and you have a freshman making a play down the stretch — (it’s) pretty special.”
This postseason, the Wolverines’ motto has been “survive and advance,” and in those 34 seconds, they lived it.