While the Michigan women’s basketball team had to figure out early this season how to move on after the graduations of all-time leading scorer Katelynn Flaherty and Jillian Dunston, the program’s career No. 2 rebounder, Michigan State scored a stunning upset of then-No. 3 Oregon.
That all seems so long ago.
The Wolverines won eight of their final nine regular-season games to finish 20-10 and fourth place in the conference and earned a double-bye in this week’s Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis. They will play Friday in the quarterfinals.
Michigan State is coming off a loss to Minnesota and wrapped up the regular season at 19-10. The Spartans finished in a three-way tie for seventh with Minnesota and Northwestern and is the No. 9 tournament seed. They will face Northwestern at noon at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
If the Spartans advance, they will face top-seed Maryland on Friday. The Terps were 26-3 this season and won the outright Big Ten season championship, their fourth title since 2015.
“I’ve been in the league now for seven seasons and this is the strongest top to bottom our league has been,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico, who has led the Wolverines to seven straight 20-win seasons, said Monday on a conference call. “We have teams in our league, Michigan State, for example, that didn’t get a double-bye but beat Oregon during the course of the year. Some really great wins for our league and just excited to have some of the best coaches and best players in the country representing our league.”
Both teams have some of the top players in the Big Ten. Michigan senior center Hallie Thome and freshman guard Naz Hillmon and Michigan State redshirt junior guard Shay Colley were voted All-Big Ten first team by the coaches. Hillmon was voted Freshman of the Year by the media and Sixth Player of the Year by the coaches. The Spartans’ center Jenna Allen was named second-team.
“She’s had a really good senior season for us,” MSU coach Suzy Merchant said of Allen during the conference call. “I think it started back in the summer. She committed to changing her diet. She got in a lot better shape. She really stepped up this year. She was in the gym all the time. She committed to her diet and conditioning and made a big difference for us. She’s been a tremendous senior leader for us.”
Merchant also said Allen has “the most beautiful” 3-point shot in the Big Ten.
Colley averages 14.7 points and 5.2 rebounds and has worked to expand from a lead-by-example player to being more vocal.
“She’s a pretty quiet kid,” Merchant said. “She’s not the first one to hold her hand up and say, let me do it (leader). She’s really tried to commit herself to try to be more of a vocal leader on the court and in practices, especially. That’s where it has to start. We have a freshman point guard (Nia Clouden) so I’ve really been impressed watching her embrace Nia. It’s been a neat relationship to watch develop over the time. She’s really trying to be more vocal. That’s not something natural to her, to be quite frank, but I’ve been really impressed with the way she’s really tried to challenge herself a little bit to be more verbal, to be more dedicated in practice and committed to who’s around her and how she can lift them up and the words she uses, especially with our freshman point guard.”
For the Wolverines, it took time this season to navigate without Flaherty and Dunston. They were go-to constants, and even though Arico and her players knew they were no longer part of the team, it was an adjustment. Arico described the season in three parts — “a tough start, and then a tremendous February and a great finish.”
But they were slow to get there, at least early in Big Ten play. Then, it all seemed to click.
Arico said the Wolverines have been a more balanced attack than she’s ever had in her seven years as head coach. She credits Hillmon and fellow freshman Amy Dilk for their maturity, and of course Thome, and Nicole Munger, who earned Big Ten honorable mention, described as the heart and soul of the team. All in all, the Wolverines have had balance.
“It’s all coaching, right? No. I’m kidding,” Arico said, laughing. “ It took our players a minute to figure it out. I think, also, our league is stronger than it’s ever been. When you go on the road in the Big Ten, it’s incredibly difficult until you experience it, especially as a young kid, the focus, the lock-in, the attention to detail that it takes when you play on the road in this league is really incredible. (Former Michigan basketball player) Terry Mills said to me a couple weeks ago when we were going through it and trying to figure it out, he said, ‘You know, a key I’ve noticed through the years is your role players, players six, seven and eight really have got to figure out how to step up on the road and how to make an impact.’
“And Akienreh Johnson and Kayla Robbins have really turned up their game in this last month of play. And Akienreh missed the first month of the season with a broken hand and is a kid who had two ACLs earlier in her career, so she’s persevered and is a kid that’s battled back from injuries and is now starting to click. And Kayla Robbins, another kid for us who’s a junior who’s playing more and more minutes and becoming more and more confidence and comfortable, so we’re deeper than we’ve ever been. I think that has helped, the ability to pressure people has helped. Our length has definitely helped, and we’re playing with a lot of confidence. When we were going through those struggles, we never got to low, and that’s a credit to Nicole Munger and Hallie Thome getting the younger kids to stay the course and believe the vision and believe your hard work will pay off, and things are starting to click a little bit better for us.”
While the Spartans get to it in tournament play, Michigan will wait and watch. Sometimes that can be a trap, and Arico said she reminded her players to stay focused and locked in. For both teams, this is when their teams’ identities take hold — when it matters most.
“I was excited about our team and I still am probably more excited, and I said to them in the locker room after the game, their ability to still be grinding, and their ability to stay after practice,” she said. “I mean, they’re still in the gym. I have to kick them out some days. They are really invested at this point, in March, and a lot of times you don’t see teams that are this invested in March. So I’m excited about his group. But coming into the year with those bumps in the road, I said, ‘Holy cow, how are we going to score at times, and how are we going to figure this out, and what are we gonna do?’ In the past, if we needed a bucket, you could always go to Katelynn, and we always had something to run for Katelynn and she was always able to make a play. Even myself personally probably that stretch we went through was more losses for myself that I had faced in probably 10 years during a course of a period of time.
“It was important to lean on each other, to count on our staff, to count on our players and remain positive because it was such a transition. When you have a player, and you see a lot of teams go through it when they lose a legendary coach, a hall of fame coach, and you see a lot of teams go through it when they lose an impact player like a Katelynn Flaherty, it takes a minute to adjust and it doesn’t just happen in one game. It takes a course of a season to really figure out, What is our new identity, and who are we and who are our go-to people?’ And this year, more than any team I’ve ever coached, it is a balance, and on any given night it could be a different person, and I think that’s what really makes us special.”
Big Ten tournament
No. 12 Penn State (12-17) vs. No. 13 Wisconsin (13-17), 1:30
No. 11 Purdue (17-14) vs. No. 14 Illinois (10-19), 4
No. 8 Northwestern (16-13) vs. No. 9 MSU (19-10), Noon
No. 5 Ohio State (14-13) vs. No. 12/13 winner, 2:30
No. 7 Minnesota (20-9) vs. No. 10 Indiana (19-11), 6:30
No. 6 Nebraska (14-15) vs. No. 11/14 winner, 9
No. 1 Maryland (16-3) vs. No. 8/9 winner, Noon
No. 4 Michigan (20-10) vs. Ohio State-No.12/13 winner, 2:30
No. 2 Iowa (23-6) vs. No. 7/10 winner, 6:30
No. 3 Rutgers (21-8) vs. Nebraska-No. 11/14 winner, 9
5 and 7:30 p.m.