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Flaherty, Michigan women aim to build on first banner

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — It is a new season for the Michigan women’s basketball team, but in many ways, it began way back in April when the Wolverines won the WNIT Tournament in triple-overtime.

The Wolverines were surprisingly left out of the NCAA Tournament and the next day at practice, coach Kim Barnes Arico, now entering her sixth season, wasn’t sure what she would encounter from her players.

How the team recovered and rebounded has laid the ground work for this upcoming season that begins Nov. 10 when the program’s first postseason championship will be commemorated with a banner. It will be raised that night in the corner of the Crisler Center to the right of the men’s 1989 NCAA national championship banner.

“Knowing we’ve done something that’s never even been done before,” senior Jillian Dunston said Wednesday at media day, “I could come here 20 years later knowing I was part of one of the first things that had ever been done, and I think that’s incredible and speaks beyond words.”

The Wolverines were 28-9 last season, 11-5 in the Big Ten. They won their final six to clinch the WNIT championship. Barnes Arico is the program’s first coach with five 20-win seasons and with a record of 111-63 at Michigan, she is 13 wins from become the all-time winningest coach in school history.

Michigan returns its top scorers from last season, senior Katelynn Flaherty, who averaged 20.2 points, and junior Hallie Thome, who averaged 16.2 points.

“Last year, we knew we deserved to be in the (NCAA) tournament,” said Flaherty, who is 58 points from becoming the program's all-time leading scorer. She currently has 2,019 points. “Coming out of the season with a win in the WNIT in the championship, it motivates us for this year. Out of my four years this is the most chemistry we’ve had and in practice we’re doing so well, probably better than we have, and I think everyone is on a different level this year.”

Flaherty said the tournament snub has had a lasting effect.

“You kind of remember how we felt we kind of got cheated,” she said. “It’s motivational, but we know we can compete with anybody in the country, anybody in the Big Ten, so we feed off that.”

Dunston was the one who walked into the practice the day after finding out the Wolverines were excluded from the big dance and told her teammates they were going to win the WNIT.

“I was so heartbroken and the only way people would believe that we should have been in the tournament is if we won the WNIT to show that we should never have been in there in the first place,” Dunston said. “That’s what we did. At the beginning of the tournament we weren’t doing so hot. We were barely winning against teams we should have been spanking.

“But at the end we finished so strong, it was incredible.”

For Barnes Arico, whose goal has been to build Michigan into an elite program, that tournament run is not only one for the Crisler rafters, but is seared in her memory.

“That was a devastating blow for our team at the moment, but for me as a coach, that run we made in the WNIT championsihop was one of the greatest runs and the greatest memories I will have as a coach,” Barnes Arico said Wednesday. “The way our team came together, the chemistry. The day after we weren’t selected, we went to practice the next day and Jillian Dunston — everyone had tears in our eyes, I didn’t know if people were going to want to go to practice the next day. She got to the circle that day and she said, ‘Coach, they made a mistake. It’s our job now to prove to everyone in the world that they made a mistake. Michigan is one of the best teams in the country. We should be represented in the NCAA Tournament.’

“Our team really came together. We overcame many obstacles along the way, and we were able to win that championship. Three overtimes, down six points with a minute to go. Every timeout, our players would get to the bench, ‘Coach, don’t worry, we have this, we have this. We’ve come this far, we’re not going to let this one slip out of our hands.’ And they figured out a way to do it.”