It was March 3 in the press conference room at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, and Katelynn Flaherty took the stand. The Michigan women’s basketball team had just lost its opening game of the Big Ten Tournament, ending its hopes of making the NCAA Tournament.
Clearly frustrated, Flaherty sat at the podium. The team shot 45 percent that day, and perhaps more solo attempts from Flaherty may have helped.
“Katelynn, was there a point where you just said, ‘I have got to start shooting it more?’ ” asked one reporter.
Flaherty answered humbly, as usual, remarking more about the flow of the game and playing for her teammates than about the fact that she’s the team’s best scorer. Her response veiled a sense of disappointment.
Before the loss, Michigan was 9-9 in the conference and 18-12 overall. Not the strongest case for a NCAA Tournament bid, but strong enough that a solid showing at the conference tournament could have put them on the bubble.
The Wolverines led Iowa by 16 points at one point, but the Hawkeyes fought back to win. Flaherty put up 31 and broke Michigan’s single-season scoring record, but any positive notes were overshadowed by the loss.
Now, a month later, Flaherty has received Honorable Mention All-American recognition, but she’s neither a Big Ten champion nor had the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament.
The latter is the most disappointing, because it’s hard to picture an athlete as talented as Flaherty not playing in the NCAA Tournament. Seven months ago, she claimed her desire to help bring the team to the next level, a goal that involved making the 64-team field.
That was at the team media day in October, where much of the focus was on Flaherty.
Flaherty was just days away from the tip off of her second year as a Wolverine, and expectations were high. She followed her record-breaking freshman season with a Team USA tryout over the summer, but had missed the cut on the 12-person roster.
Among other things, her teammates discussed their own expectations for Katelynn, what it’s like to play alongside her, the ins and outs of her game as well as what she’s like off the court.
The general vibe her teammates gave off was that they all knew Flaherty was the team’s strongest player, but they also knew she would deflect the admiration. And just as much as she was humble, she was five times more driven. One teammate said that Flaherty’s biggest strength wasn’t her 3-point shooting or her ball-handling skills, but “her ability to do whatever it takes.”
Talking to her teammates, examining her biography and statistics and listening to Barnes Arico’s appraisals, it becomes clear that she is already one of the best players — if not the best — the program has ever seen.
At media day, Flaherty explained what she had taken away from the Team USA tryout, what parts of her game she’d worked on most in the offseason and, briefly, what her personal and team goals looked like.
She wanted to be a first-team All-Big Ten selection and an All-American. For the team, she wanted Michigan to win the Big Ten and make the NCAA Tournament.
Over the course of the season, she made her case for each individual accolade, but the team couldn’t sway the NCAA Tournament committee after falling short its effort to pick up big wins. Flaherty rarely faltered, scoring more than 15 points in all but three of Michigan’s 28 regular season games. She put up 22.3 points per game and remained one of the nation’s top-10 scorers all season, checking off another one of her goals with a first-team All-Big Ten selection.
She continued to amaze fans every time she hit a deep 3 or wove through opponents’ defenses. She made basketball look easy and headlines repetitive.
Each week, Flaherty scored in bunches against NCAA Tournament teams like Maryland, Ohio State and Michigan State. Against reputable, quality opponents, Flaherty powered one of the nation’s highest-scoring offenses. When mid-March rolled around, though, Michigan was left for the Women’s National Invitation Tournament, the second-rate bracket behind the Big Dance.
She lit up the WNIT during a semifinal run for the second straight year, but it was all just consolation. Michigan was hoping to make the NCAA Tournament in both seasons, and it feels like Flaherty has been missing out.
A player of Flaherty’s caliber deserves to compete on the national stage, Her postseason résumé shouldn’t list the WNIT. It should list the real thing. She doesn’t have the same talent around her like some of the aforementioned teams, and at times it feels like she carries the Wolverines, but those days may be over.
It’s important to note that Michigan is the right fit. Flaherty and Barnes Arico have known each other for years — a relationship that began when Flaherty was in middle school. She excels in the ‘2’ spot in Michigan’s guard-heavy system, and overall the Wolverines are improving. Each recruiting class continues to be better than the previous one, and potentially leading Michigan to the national spotlight would be indicative of her success.
An appearance would not only signify the Wolverines’ rising program, but also highlight what will inevitably be one of the greatest careers in the history of Michigan women’s basketball.
Halfway done with her college career, Flaherty hasn’t played in the NCAA Tournament. If she doesn’t before graduating, it would be severely disappointing.