Ann Arbor — Michigan is one step closer to hanging its first women’s basketball banner at Crisler Center.
With a 65-61 win over Villanova in a Women's National Invitation Tournament semifinal on Wednesday, the Wolverines earned their first trip to the WNIT championship game in their fourth try.
The Wolverines play Georgia Tech in the WNIT championship game at 3 p.m. Saturday at Detroit Mercy’s Calihan Hall.
“It was incredible,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “For the disappointment we have gone through (not making the NCAA tournament) and for our kids to rally and really get past this game, and the opportunity to play in a championship game, is really special.
“It’s special for our seniors, it’s special for our entire program. I mean, each year that they’ve been here, they’ve been able to do things that weren’t accomplished the year before. I’m really proud of our team.
“That’s the goal (getting the banner). If you look around Crisler, there’s not one for women’s basketball. That has been one of our goals and for our senior class to accomplish that, they’ve given four years of everything they have. They deserve it more than anything else.”
Hallie Thome had 22 points to lead the Wolverines (27-9). Katelynn Flaherty had 18 and Siera Thompson had 12.
Alex Louin scored 14, Adrianna Hahn scored 12 and Samantha Wilkes 10 for the Wildcats (20-15).
Michigan struggled with open 3-pointers, missing four of its first five attempts of the first quarter before Flaherty hit one with 1:30 left.
“It’s definitely not frustrating,” Barnes Arico said. “If anybody watches our team and scouts our team, their goal is to limit Katelynn Flaherty and Hallie Thome. The fact that they continue to come out as our leading scorers night in and night out is pretty incredible to me.”
The Wolverines went on a 7-1 run in the last three minutes, leading 17-11 after one.
Villanova chipped away at Michigan’s lead in the second quarter, but the Wolverines maintained a 29-26 lead at the break.
“I knew tonight was going to be an incredibly difficult matchup for us,” Barnes Arico said of the game against Villanova. “I watched them play against Indiana the other night and they took advantage of Indiana.”
Michigan center Hallie Thome talks about Wednesday's 65-61 WNIT semifinal win over Villanova.
Michigan shot 11-of-28 in the first half, making only four 3-pointers on 12 attempts.
Villanova was 10-of-28, and 5-of-17 from long distance.
Flaherty, who made seven 3-pointers against Virginia Tech on Saturday, was a paltry 1-of-5 in the first half, despite leading the team with 10 points.
As with Saturday, Michigan turned a tentative first half into a dominant third quarter.
After Villanova got back-to-back long 3-pointers from Hahn, tying the score at 32 early in the third, Michigan went on a 6-0 run, taking a 38-32 lead with 6:29 left.
The Wolverines extended the run, going up 10 (42-32 with 3:24 left and 44-34 with 2:16 left), while keeping Wildcats off the board for 5 1/2 minutes.
Michigan kept up the offensive pressure late in the quarter. Flaherty found Thome open under the basket in the closing seconds of the quarter.
Thome’s layup at the buzzer made Michigan’s lead 48-36 going into the final 10 minutes.
The Wolverines continued to pull away in the fourth, leading 52-36 with 8:30 left.
Villanova went on a 10-0 run midway through the fourth quarter, trimming Michigan’s lead to 54-49 with 5:23 left.
“Sometimes it’s very simple,” Villanova coach Harry Perretta said. “You’ve got to make shots. And during the third quarter, we didn’t make any shots. All of a sudden, in the fourth quarter, we made shots that we missed (before). There’s nothing you can say. I just told them ‘You’ve got to keep shooting the ball.’ I was pleased with the way we played.”
After the game, Barnes Arico alluded to something she brought up after Saturday’s quarterfinal win over Virginia Tech: Her disappointment over Michigan being left out of the NCAA tournament, saying the Selection Committee made a mistake.
“Hopefully we are showing them that they did,” she said. “Our team has rallied behind (the seniors). I think they have raised the level of their game another notch, because they’re going out with everything they have.”
Al Willman is a freelance writer