Senior point guard Siera Thompson knew how many assists she needed to become the all-time assists leader in Michigan women’s basketball history before Saturday’s WNIT quarterfinal against Virginia Tech (20-14). She made sure to make every pass count.
At the 4:42 mark in the fourth quarter, Thompson outletted the ball down low to junior forward Jillian Dunston. She returned the favor, floating the ball into the basket to give Thompson assist No. 538. When Thompson went to the bench shortly thereafter in what could possibly be her final game in Ann Arbor, her teammates showered her with cheers, accompanied by the roar of the Crisler Center crowd.
It was that kind of day for the Wolverines (26-9), who used stifling defense and offensive consistency to topple the Hokies, 80-62, and advance to the WNIT semifinals for the third consecutive season. Junior guard Katelynn Flaherty and sophomore center Hallie Thome led the offensive charge with 29 and 27 points, respectively.
“Everytime we step on the floor, we want to win,” Flaherty said. “I think we’ve realized that we only have a certain amount of games left, and if we’re going to be in this tournament, we might as well win it and prove people wrong.
“Just to send out the seniors with a championship and do something that’s never been done is really what we want to do.”
The two teams were nearly neck-and-neck after the first period, tying in shooting percentage at 50, rebounds with nine and turnovers with three. But Virginia Tech was ultimately able to take a 20-19 lead thanks to four 3-pointers versus only one for the Wolverines. With the absence of freshman guard Kysre Gondrezick, who is sitting out indefinitely due to personal reasons, Michigan was forced to balance its scoring, and Thompson, Flaherty and Thome stepped up with at least six points each in the quarter.
“Our team is probably playing some of the best basketball it (has) played all season long,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “I think our chemistry has been outstanding and I think people have picked up the slack and picked up the minutes.”
The following period showcased a staunch Wolverine defense that allowed just nine points for a 38-29 halftime lead. At one point, the Hokies went on a 5:11 scoring drought, in which Michigan went on an 11-0 run and forced Virginia Tech to miss 11 consecutive field goals. The Wolverines also forced five turnovers and got three blocks off the bench from freshman forward Kayla Robbins. Though the scoring efforts stemmed mainly from Flaherty and Thome, it was Thompson who did it all in the half with six points, six boards and four assists.
It was all Michigan the rest of the way. Virginia Tech scored 13 points in the third period after converting on two treys and two and-one plays, but the Wolverines responded in kind with two and-one plays of their own and four 3-pointers from Flaherty, who had seven on the day.
“It’s just kind of how the game panned out,” Flaherty said of her shooting performance. “(Virginia Tech is) a very good 3-point shooting team, so I think our goal was to kind of push in transition and get in long rebounds, but it ended up being that my teammates found me in good spots and I just felt more open than I usually do and came off some good screens.”
Up 17 points headed into the final quarter, the Wolverines continued pouring it on. Thome scored Michigan’s first seven points, and the panicked Hokies were battered in the paint in the final 10 minutes, succumbing to a number of rushed shots and unforced turnovers.
“The last few games we’ve locked in defensively,” Thompson said. “We’re not just a scoring team now, we have to lock in on defense. We’ve lost some scoring from the absence of Kysre, so we have to step up in other areas.”
With the quarterfinal victory, Michigan will face either Villanova or Big Ten foe Indiana, the latter of whom could present the Wolverines with an opportunity at redemption after the crushing loss in Bloomington that led to Michigan dropping three of the final four games of its regular season.