In each of the past two seasons, the Michigan women’s basketball team’s stated goal of securing a berth in the NCAA Tournament was derailed by one common factor: losses in close games.
Last year, the Wolverines dropped six contests by 10 or fewer points, which ultimately relegated them to the Women’s National Invitation Tournament. While Michigan had just three similar defeats this season, a 76-75 loss at Penn State in the last game of the regular season is likely what doomed the Wolverines’ tournament hopes.
But one encouraging sign has emerged in Michigan’s WNIT wins over Kent State on Thursday and Wright State on Saturday. In both games, the Wolverines withstood a late surge by the other team and held on for a victory.
“Survive and advance,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “I think in a tournament it’s a great experience to be put in this position. I think that will definitely give us confidence moving forward.”
Against the Golden Flashes, Michigan raced out to a 43-22 halftime advantage thanks in large part to its suffocating defense. Kent State converted a mere 18.8 percent of its shots in the first two quarters.
Then the Golden Flashes started making shots, which allowed them to pull within five points of the Wolverines with two minutes left in the game. It appeared Michigan’s season might have been heading for a disastrous finish.
The Wolverines lived to play another day, though. Senior guard Siera Thompson sank four free throws and freshman guard Kysre Gondrezick made a layup in the waning minutes, propelling Michigan to a 67-60 triumph.
The situation was even scarier for the Wolverines against the Raiders. Michigan built another 20-point lead in the first half, but Wright State fought back to take a 64-63 edge with just under five minutes left in the fourth quarter. Michigan’s season was on the line once more.
This time, it was sophomore center Hallie Thome and junior forward Jillian Dunston to the rescue for the Wolverines. The duo combined for six points down the stretch and secured a 71-66 win for Michigan.
“Fatigue is just a state of mind. You can always push through it,” Dunston said. “I think it was just, things were going our way and then we kind of let things slip that we don’t normally.”
For now, the Wolverines’ goal is to win the WNIT. It would be a noteworthy accomplishment, as it would allow Michigan to hang its first banner in Crisler Center.
But the WNIT games also provide the Wolverines an opportunity to think about long-term aspirations. Four of Michigan’s five starters — including all three of its All-Big Ten players — are scheduled to return next season. Undoubtedly, securing an NCAA berth and erasing the sting from this year’s snub will be priority number one for the returning players.
If the Wolverines can learn from the experience of winning these close WNIT games, and turn contests like the Penn State loss into wins, Michigan will have a very good chance to go dancing at this time next year.
“We were put in these situations plenty of times last year and we didn’t get a single (game),” Dunston said. “This year we’ve learned to deal with it. There’s been a ton of growth from last year. Everyone is a year older.”