LOUISVILLE, Ky. — On Sunday afternoon, the Michigan women’s basketball team will take the floor as heavy underdogs against the Albany region’s top seed in Louisville, which has the luxury of hosting the game on its home floor.
While many might be quick to count the Wolverines out against one of the nation’s top teams, it’s a role that the team has learned to embrace over the course of the season.
After losing Katelynn Flaherty, the program’s all-time leading scorer, with over 2,700 career points, Michigan failed to receive much recognition in any preseason polls. Despite bringing in a recruiting class that ranked 12th in the nation, few expected the Wolverines to compete nationally.
“I’m sure there were many people (asking): ‘How is Michigan going to survive and where is Michigan going to go at this point?’” recalled Michigan head coach Kim Barnes Arico.
As the season began, Michigan showed just how it would survive, entering Big Ten play with a record of 10-3 and a win over then-ranked Missouri, thanks in large part to the performances of new freshman forward Naz Hillmon and guard Amy Dilk.
Once conference play started, the team hit a snag, finding itself sitting at 13-9 and 3-6 in the conference after a January 27 loss to arch-rival Michigan State. It particularly struggled to find success on the road, where it lost its first five in conference play. While it may have been hard to see in the moment, Barnes Arico believed that the tough road tests would make her team better prepared in the long run.
“We really challenged ourselves in the non-conference schedule, as well as in our conference, to play against the best opponents and to put ourselves on the road as much as we possibly could,” Barnes Arico said.
Once again, the Wolverines found few who believed that it could make a run and reach the NCAA Tournament. Michigan found itself in the familiar role of underdog. And once again, its doubters were silenced.
After the Michigan State loss, the Wolverines went on a blistering 7-1 run in the month of February, beating top teams in the conference including Iowa and Rutgers and clinching a top four seed in the Big Ten Tournament.
“We just had a lot of fun in that month and we were taking things serious, but taking it one step at a time and just letting the game come to us,” Hillmon said.
Michigan also developed a penchant of winning close games late, which had been among its biggest caveats in the early stages of conference play. Suddenly, the Wolverines were finding itself on the winning side of contests that had previously resulted in losses.
“We found how to close games out as much as like starting the jump on them as early as possible,” Dilk said.
Now, with its biggest challenge of the season looming, Michigan once again finds itself playing the role of David to Louisville’s Goliath.
“It’s something that we’re used to,” Hillmon said. “There’s been a lot of times, just counting us out but we’ve been showing up.”
The task of taking down a one seed will be even more daunting considering the fact that Louisville will likely have many of its home fans in attendance, effectively making a neutral site contest a road game. For senior Nicole Munger, though, that will only makes Sunday’s game sweeter if her team is able to taste victory.
“I think it makes it more fun, going in with the underdog mentality and getting something done that’s very special,” she said.
Despite being an eight seed, it’s clear that the Wolverines are familiar in their role. And while many will count it out, Michigan has proven time and time again that it’s okay being doubted.
“I love it,” Munger said. “We have a chance to wear the Cinderella shoe. We can be bracket busters.”