The last time the Michigan women’s basketball team faced off against Georgia Tech, the Wolverines beat the Yellow Jackets 92-52. But in the championship game of the Women’s National Invitational Tournament on Saturday, a closer game is expected.
“I don’t think we can look at that score,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “We were a much different team at that point. … It’s a new opponent.”
Michigan has finally earned a spot in the WNIT championship after losing in the semifinal round in 2016 and 2015. No team in program history has come closer to hanging a championship banner, and this year’s Wolverines are determined to accomplish the feat.
Michigan has won five games in the WNIT — as have the Yellow Jackets. When they meet at Calihan Hall in Detroit — four months after their initial competition — the Wolverines will still have a sense of home-court advantage.
“I’m thrilled that we’re playing it in the state of Michigan,” Barnes Arico said. “There’s no place I’d rather cut down the nets than here (at Crisler Center), but if it couldn’t be here, I’m glad it’s there (at Calihan Hall).”
But in order to cut down the nets, Michigan will have to shut down the well-rounded Yellow Jackets. While the Wolverines’ starters play most of each game (junior guard Katelynn Flaherty and senior guard Siera Thompson both average 33.4 minutes) Georgia Tech utilizes more of its bench, which can play a large role in keeping players fresh.
Twelve different Yellow Jackets have started games, while Michigan’s list of starters includes just six players. While Georgia Tech’s leading scorer, forward Zaire O’Neil, is not as prolific as Flaherty (who averages 20 points per game), O’Neil is one of three Yellow Jackets who averages double-digit points. Guard Imani Tilford just misses the mark, scoring an average of 9.4 points.
Without freshman guard Kysre Gondrezick, the Wolverines are down to just two consistent double-digit scorers in Flaherty and sophomore center Hallie Thome. While the duo has led Michigan to victory since Gondrezick stepped away before the third round of the WNIT, double teaming either Thome or Flaherty could seriously hinder the Wolverines’ offensive efforts.
Thompson and junior guard Jillian Dunston have also contributed clutch points in recent games, scoring eight and 12 points against Villanova, respectively. They both are key members of Michigan’s defense as well and will need to have big games on both ends of the court in order for the Wolverines to clinch the win.
Michigan seems to be itching to win this championship. After a few sluggish games to open the WNIT, the Wolverines are now determined to prove the NCAA Tournament selection committee wrong and avenge their seniors, Thompson and guard Danielle Williams — who they believe deserved the opportunity to compete in the Big Dance.
“In the beginning, we were playing like we were still frustrated at the NCAA committee,” Dunston said. “But I think it kind of hit us that this is our chance to prove ourselves, to show that we shouldn’t be in the WNIT in the first place. So the only way to do that is to win it.”
Added Thome: “We’ve taken the mentality that even though we’re not hanging the banner we set our minds on at the beginning of the season, we still have a chance to be able to make history. … Right now we’re just doing it for each other and for our seniors.”
But in order to pull off the victory, Michigan will have to stay focused on each quarter and not think too far ahead. The Yellow Jackets have played tight games against some of the best teams in the country, and lost to No. 6 Florida State by just six points. With a deep bench and plenty of capable rebounders, Georgia Tech will provide a stiff challenge for the Wolverines.
“They’re definitely going to want some revenge and have a chip on their shoulder from the way we beat them at the beginning of the season,” Thome said. “We just have to be ready to go out and play Michigan basketball.”