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UM guard Katelynn Flaherty talks about last season's WNIT title serving as motivation for this season. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News

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Ann Arbor — It will be a monumental occasion for the No. 24 Michigan women’s basketball program when the team opens its regular season Friday against George Mason in the WNIT preseason tournament. Not only will it raise its first championship banner, but this will be the first game of senior Katelynn Flaherty’s push to become the Wolverines’ all-time leading scorer.

The Wolverines, snubbed by the NCAA Tournament, won the program’s first postseason championship, defeating Georgia Tech in triple overtime of the WNIT last April. The banner commemorating the achievement will be raised at the Crisler Center before the season opener.

“It’s a turning point for this program,” Flaherty said of the championship.

Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico calls Flaherty and junior center Hallie Thome “two of the best players in the country.” Both were first-team All-Big Ten selections last season, and with both back the Wolverines believe they can take a significant step nationally.

Flaherty is on the cusp of breaking Diane Dietz’s all-time scoring record of 2,076 points set during her career from 1978-1982. Flaherty, one of six Wolverines, male or female, to score at least 2,000 points, enters the season with 2,019 points, 58 from the record.

“It shows all my hard work has paid off and that’s something I’ve been working toward, to be a complete overall player since I picked up a basketball and I think this attests to how hard I work,” said Flaherty, who also has 292 career three-pointers and is eight from becoming the seventh player in Big Ten history with 300.

“I continue to say this, that I definitely am put in the positions I’m in because of my coaches and my teammates. I played with (former UM point guard) Siera Thompson for three years and she got me the ball in great positions and got me a lot of my shots and a lot of my looks. so I definitely wouldn’t be in this position without them.”

Barnes Arico has watched Flaherty’s evolution into a top, complete player from her high school days to now this, her senior year in college. But when discussing freshman point guard Deja Church and the fact she plays at one speed, “100 mph all the time,” she is reminded that Flaherty also was like that at the beginning of her Michigan career and needed the polish of experience.

“The one thing that sticks out the most about Katelynn is her composure,” Barnes Arico said. “I think that comes with experience. I used to say, ‘Oh my goodness is Katelynn ever going to learn how to defend? Is Katelynn ever going to get a rebound? Will she ever dive on the floor?’ Things that if she scores 25 I could live with, but you always wanted her to do so much more.

“And this year she’s doing everything. It’s incredible. To watch her vision — because she’s going to have to play a little bit of the point guard spot, as well, she leads our team every day in assists — the game has slowed down for her and she sees things that most of the other players in our program are not seeing right now. She’s an incredible scorer but this year I think we will see more of the total package from her.”

With Thompson’s departure, Church is expected to take over at the point, but Flaherty realized this would be an enormous responsibility for the freshman.

“At the end of last year when we talked I told (Barnes Arico) I wanted to come in and be a point guard and a two-guard,” said Flaherty, who sharpened her ball-handling skills and passing in the offseason. “If I had the ball I wanted the opportunity to take it up the court and run a play, and I think she was fine with it as long as I could come back and prove it.

“It’s difficult in a sense because Siera was so great at what she did. It’s harder for me to think on the fly. The biggest difference is having to call a play in our team’s best interest rather than have someone call it for me.”

Barnes Arico knew that she wanted to present this opportunity to Flaherty, and was sort of stunned when the senior brought it up first.

“One, I didn’t know if she would want that role and two, how are you going to get someone that’s just worried about scoring to think about running the team? That’s a big transition,” Barnes Arico said. “A couple days passed and Katelynn and I sat down and she’s like, ‘Coach, I want to be the point guard,’ and I said, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, we still need to figure out a way for you to get 15 to 20 shots a game, can we do that at the point guard position?’

“That’s something we spent a lot of time in the offseason talking about, developing, figuring out. Do we have to run different sets? Do we have to run sets for our point guard now where we ran a lot of sets for the person off the ball?”

While Barnes Arico has studied other point guards who have been scorers and led their teams to help devise a plan for Flaherty and Church. Flaherty will not be expected to take on defending the opposing team’s point guard.

“I think Deja Church can be one of the best defenders in our league,” Barnes Arico said. “We have to find that balance, and that’s what we’re going to use the non-league for is to find that balance between playing Katelynn off the ball or having Katelynn with the ball in her hands. I am surprised but I will admit she is doing exceptionally well.

“The sacrifices this young lady makes and the training she does is incredible. She has probably taken five days off her entire life. I think she has the ability to do it, but I don’t know we want to keep her there 100 percent of the time. I think it’s going to be by committee until Deja gets comfortable.”

Among her teammates and coaches, Flaherty’s work ethic is legend. In the offseason, she will shoot 1,000 baskets every day and that takes about an hour and 45 minutes. During the season, she spends 45 minutes after every practice and takes roughly 400 shots.

“I’ve never played with someone like Katelynn and I don’t think I’ll ever have the opportunity to play with another player like her,” Thome said. “Just her ability to go out there and score and be consistent day after day. And if she’s tired, she still has to get her shots up after practice. She has a routine and it’s incredible. You get on a court and you see her in a game and it speaks volumes to it. She’s worked so hard so I’m so excited to see her hard work pay off her senior season.”

achengelis@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/chengelis

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