Last season, the Michigan women’s basketball team was devastated when it failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. So when the seventh-seeded Wolverines (10-6 Big Ten, 23-9 overall) faced No. 10 seed Northern Colorado (26-7) on Friday afternoon in Waco, Texas, they had something to prove — that they deserved to be on the big stage.
Michigan proved that point loud and clear by defeating the Bears, 75-61, to advance to the second round of the Tournament.
“Just a great overall win for our team,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “Excited to be here. This was really a goal of ours, but we didn't want to just get here, we wanted to be successful in the Tournament and keep advancing. So that was really important for us to come out and play well today. I was really proud of our effort from the tip.”
The contest was special for forward Jillian Dunston and guard Katelynn Flaherty. After four years of hard work, the seniors finally got to compete in the main event. They got to enjoy it too, because the Wolverines dominated Northern Colorado by much more than the final score entails.
The game started out a bit sloppy, with both sides bothered by a lack of ball control. In fact, the two teams combined for 11 turnovers in the opening quarter — six from the Bears and five from Michigan. The issue persisted through the whole game, and the groups finished with a substandard 17 and 19 turnovers, respectively.
What made the difference, though, was how players reacted when the opponent failed to maintain possession. And this is where the Wolverines excelled. They capitalized on Northern Colorado’s misfortunes early, scoring 17 points off turnovers by the end of the first half, while the Bears only racked up 3.
Michigan looked to be a total mismatch for Northern Colorado from the start. The Wolverines were taller and faster and managed to force their way to the basket. This made the Bears collapse in, which created scoring chances from beyond the arc. Flaherty drained a 3-pointer from up top — five minutes after tipoff — to give her team a 9-7 lead. Michigan maintained the lead till the final buzzer, only widening the gap.
Speaking of mismatches, the most significant one was between junior center Hallie Thome and anybody who tried to guard her. Thome towered over her defenders. Her height advantage, coupled with her spin moves and finesse around the rim, helped her take ownership of the paint.
Thome’s mismatch was evident midway through the second quarter when she caught a long pass from Dunston down low. Calmly but quickly, Thome maneuvered around her defender with a spin to score the basket and draw a foul. She made the resulting free-throw for a three-point play.
Thome finished the game with a team-high 24 points. She and Flaherty — who scored 20 — combined for 26 points in the first half, giving the Wolverines a 36-19 lead heading into intermission.
“We were able to find Hallie and establish Hallie early. That was a key for us,” Barnes Arico said. “Then Katelynn got on fire, as she normally does.”
For the most part, the second half was similar to the first. Michigan continued to have the upper hand. Northern Colorado struggled to attack the basket because the Wolverines displayed solid interior defense.
Led by guard Savannah Scott — who finished with a team-high 25 points — the Bears’ offense was more successful in the final two frames thanks to improved shooting. They shot 48.3 percent from the field after halftime, a big improvement from 33.3 percent in the first half. This boost wasn’t enough, though, and Northern Colorado never recovered.
With one minute remaining in the game, Michigan’s ride to victory met an unexpected scare. Freshman guard Deja Church hit the ground, while chasing a loose ball, and was slow to get up. She appeared to have injured her ankle. A severe injury would have been a huge loss for the Wolverines, but Barnes Arico indicated that it is not too serious.
“She said, ‘Coach, I think I overreacted,’ which is the cutest thing ever.” Barnes Arico said. “She's a freshman. She hurt her ankle earlier this week, so it's real sensitive. … I think she was scared. Her ankle has been taped up. It's sore. She tweaked it a little bit. But she said, ‘I think I'm going to be okay.’ That was great news to hear.
“She should be fine by Sunday.”
Speaking of Sunday, Michigan will face a fierce, No. 2 seed Baylor team in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
But for now, the Wolverines will cherish that they finally got to play on the big stage — and that they thrived on it.