Ann Arbor — Kim Barnes Arico knows why she was brought in to become head women’s basketball coach at Michigan.
Barnes Arico was hired in 2012 by then-Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon to guide the Wolverines to championships — Big Ten and national championships, and we’re not talking just the WNIT title they won last season after being passed over by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee.
Michigan is off to its best start in program history, carrying its 19-4 record (8-2 Big Ten) and No. 13 ranking into Thursday night’s game with Purdue at Crisler Center.
The Wolverines are coming off an 80-59 victory at Northwestern on Sunday, Barnes Arico’s milestone 400th career win, including her previous four stops.
Barnes Arico was shocked after the Wolverines were passed over by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee last year, and she should have been since they were 11-5 in the Big Ten and ranked in the top 25 late in the season before dropping four of their final five games prior to the WNIT.
Michigan earned an NCAA Tournament appearance in Barnes Arico’s first season in 2012-13, but then had to settle for four consecutive trips to the WNIT, a motivating factor heading into this season, which just so happens to be All-America candidate and high-scoring guard Katelynn Flaherty’s final shot to play in the Big Dance.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of this team, I mean we got robbed last year, not getting to the NCAA Tournament and they have been on a mission since then,” said Barnes Arico, talking of last year’s 28-9 record, which included a 19-1 mark at Crisler Center. “We went on to win the WNIT championship, but they didn’t even stop working after that point. They came back this year hungrier than ever and that’s obviously led by Jillian Dunston and Katelynn Flaherty, but also Hallie Thome, Nicole Munger, Kayla Robbins, all of our returners have something to prove. They have a chip on their shoulders so they are going out and playing like that.
“I think our young kids, they got to be there, you know Hailey Brown, Deja Church, they got to be there when the banner was raised and they got to see what that moment really meant to our program. And, they sat there and they watched that day and said, ‘Coach, we’re going to do that. We’re going to hang a bunch more. We’re committed to making Michigan great, year in and year out,’ so I think there’s a fire and intensity within all of them. They want to get better and be the best team in our conference and that’s exciting for me as a coach.”
So, has the disappointment of missing last year’s NCAA Tournament gone away?
“It doesn’t ever end,” Barnes Arico said. “I think it’s a constant reminder because the people that came before them never got the chance to experience it so Danielle Williams and Siera Thompson, who were seniors for us last year, they’ll never get that back so it’s a gut-wrenching pain that will never go away, and I think this year’s team is on a mission for all Michigan’s players, that this is for you.
“We can’t get too far ahead of ourselves, it’s one game at a time and we talk about continuing to improve and continuing to get better, but there’s a focus and an intensity to our team that I haven’t seen with Michigan’s women’s basketball and it’s a great to see. I’ll enjoy the ride and they surprise me every day. They’re just a great group to coach.”
Barnes Arico knew she had an All-America guard in Flaherty (23.4 points, 4.3 assists) — who this season became the all-time leading scorer in program history, and then more recently the leading scorer in school history, man or woman — and a strong inside presence in Thome (16.7 points, 7.7 rebounds), a 6-5 junior. But she knew the Wolverines needed other players like Munger (10.5 points, 4.3 rebounds), 6-1 freshman forward Hailey Brown (8.6 points, 5.5 rebounds), freshman guard Deja Church (7.7 points) and Dunston (3.5 points, 9.3 rebounds) to step up and play bigger roles to take the next step.
And they have, especially after suffering a heartbreaking 78-71 overtime loss to Ohio State before 8,313 at Crisler Center on Jan. 7 when the Wolverines had the ball and a two-point lead in the final minute before failing to close out the win.
In the OT loss to the Buckeyes, Thome and her teammates were looking for Flaherty to take the shots late in regulation which was a big reason for the loss.
Michigan had a chance to correct things in the rematch in Columbus on Jan. 16, and the Wolverines did just that with Munger contributing 20 points, six rebounds and four assists to go along with Thome’s 27 points and Flaherty’s 21, and freshman Deja Church (Southfield A&T) came off the bench to come through with nine points and six assists in the 84-75 win.
Michigan now has multiple weapons which makes the Wolverines dangerous the rest of the season, a threat to win the Big Ten title and make a run in the NCAA Tournament once March comes around.
“I think we’re playing great as a team and our chemistry is building,” Flaherty said. “A lot of people are stepping up. In previous game, teams used box-and-one and it was tough for us, but now with everyone scoring the ball and playing together I think that’s really helped us.
“We’re hitting people who are open and being able to knock down shots and I think we’ve done a great job of that, especially Hailey Brown who is really knocking down shots. We’re also moving without the ball really well.”
Barnes Arico feels Flaherty is playing well at point guard, and Munger is feeling more comfortable as a go-to scorer.
“I think Katelynn is now becoming more and more comfortable at running the point,” Barnes Arico said. “It’s a position she played in high school but didn’t play for us her first couple of years here. Her assist numbers are just continuing to improve. She’s such an incredible scorer, she draws so much attention, but she’s really has a calmness about her now.
“Nicole Munger is a kid who is playing with a tremendous amount of confidence right now. She needed to become a scorer for us. Last year she was a role player and this year she’s a go-to shooter. She’s really embraced that role and is being more and more comfortable with it and has done a tremendous job of knocking down shots for us.”
It sounds like Barnes Arico and the Wolverines have definitely found the recipe for success.
Now, they have to keep it going during the final month of the regular season.