They say the hardest part of a marathon is the final stretch — the period when you’ve come so far and have overcome obstacles, yet feel too exhausted to finish.
The difficulties of this last stage are prevalent in basketball and were apparent in the Michigan women’s basketball team’s performance last season.
About a year ago, the Wolverines were thriving and looked well on their way to the NCAA Tournament. But then, things took a turn.
Michigan lost three of its last four contests of the 2016-17 regular season, wasting all the momentum it had built up. It didn’t stop there; the Wolverines were then eliminated in their first game of the Big Ten Tournament by Michigan State. Due to their lackluster end-of-season performances, they fell through the rankings and failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in a row.
As Michigan knows, while the final stretch is typically the hardest, it is often the most important. This is again the case this season for the 21st-ranked Wolverines (8-4 Big Ten, 19-6 overall).
Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico’s squad was having one of the best seasons in program history and reached No. 13 in the national rankings. The defense — which allows the second-fewest points per game in the Big Ten, with 61 — excelled, led by senior forward Jillian Dunston who has a team-high 45 steals. On top of that, the offense finally started to find its groove with senior Katelynn Flaherty running the point, and the team looked to have left its turnover problems in the past.
Again, things have changed.
In the fourth quarter against Purdue last Thursday, Michigan gave up a 16-point lead and fell short in overtime. The loss killed the Wolverines’ six-game win streak and with it, their confidence.
Michigan stumbled again the following Sunday in Piscataway, falling to Rutgers, 63-56.
One loss wouldn’t have been too detrimental, but two in a row is problematic. The Wolverines have fallen eight spots in the national rankings and slipped from second to fifth in the Big Ten standings.
With just four games remaining in the regular season, Michigan is once again in the midst of a tough closing stretch. What happens in these remaining contests — against Northwestern, Michigan State, Minnesota and No. 10 Maryland — will make or break the season.
Win out and the problems go away, but that will be hard to do. Though the Wolverines stomped the Spartans in their first meeting, the next matchup will be in East Lansing, and Michigan State will be hungry for revenge. The contest against the Terrapins will be even more challenging — they are undoubtedly the best team in the conference with their high-scoring offense and skilled rebounding.
Too many avoidable losses, and Tournament dreams will be jeopardized. Last year, the Wolverines notched 22 regular season wins, yet didn’t qualify for the NCAA Tournament. They currently have 19, and are in a similar position.
For Michigan to make the most of what’s left of the season, its offense must shape up. Against the Scarlet Knights, the Wolverines scored 20 points less than their season average and had 26 turnovers. These substandard stats won’t be good enough for the tough road ahead.
Michigan is at the 20-mile mark in the race and can sniff the finish line. If the Wolverines give up now, they’ll end up just like last year — having nothing to show for their season’s early success.
But if they find that last ounce of strength to sprint the remaining few miles, their tournament dreams just may come true.