Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico and her players felt confident as they gathered at her home to watch the NCAA women's basketball tournament selection show Monday night.
They were confident last year, too, but were snubbed by the NCAA Tournament committee. They turned that disappointment into an WNIT national championship and raised the program's first banner in the Crisler Center.
So once more than half the field was revealed Monday night and the Wolverines hadn’t been mentioned, Barnes Arico admitted to some butterflies. But Michigan (22-9) earned a No. 7 seed in the Lexington Region and will face No. 10 Northern Colorado (26-6) in a first-round game Friday in Waco, Texas. Host Baylor is a No. 2 seed and likely would be the second-round opponent against the winner of Michigan-Northern Colorado.
“I was pretty confident going in,” Barnes Arico said Monday night during a conference call. “I had spoken to people at the Big Ten early in the week and we talked about how our league was a lot better this year, and how we think we’re going to be represented better. So, felt really confident.
"But then when it started to go — I felt pretty confident last year, as well — my stomach did start to ache and the kids started to get squirmy, and looking around, it started to get tighter and tighter. My little one came and sat on my lap and said, ‘Mommy, I don’t like this,’ and my son is like, ‘Ahhh, I don’t feel so good.’ We all experienced it last year with the exception of our freshmen, so the longer it went, the tighter we became. It’s easy to feel confident in the beginning, but then then we did get a little tighter and tighter.”
Seniors Katelynn Flaherty, the program’s all-time leading scorer, and her teammate and roommate Jillian Dunston, named to the Big Ten’s All-Defensive team, sat together on a big chair. The two have been critical pieces to building the Michigan program.
“I looked over to them, and at the beginning of the night I was like, ‘OK, Kate, what’s your prediction on seed? OK, Jilli, where do you think we’re going to be?’ I was going around the room asking different players different questions and the mood was really light and everybody was laughing and having a good time.
“By the time bracket two was called and we weren’t mentioned, no one was really talking anymore and everyone was quiet, and you could see the beads of sweat starting to form on some of their heads. It was a little nerve-racking at that point.”
Once Michigan was announced, the celebration began.
“We had a great embrace,” Barnes Arico said, referring to Flaherty and Dunston. “I just really appreciate and value how much they’ve meant to our program and what they’ve done for our program.”
This is Michigan’s first NCAA Tournament berth since 2013. It is the program’s seventh NCAA Tournament appearance.
Barnes Arico said the Wolverines are not satisfied with making the tournament, although in the women’s game it can feel like an uphill challenge if you are not one of the top four seeds that host the opening-round games.
“Any time you can get invited to the NCAA Tournament is a tremendous honor,” Barnes Arico said. “The players in our program now have never experienced that before, and they’re so deserving. Katelynn and Jillian deserve to be watched on the national scene, and this will give a great opportunity for everyone in the country to see our team, and I think that’s a tremendous honor.
“Last year will always leave a mark on us, but this year is a different team, and we were on a mission and we had different results than we did last year with the beating of Ohio State and Maryland and Marquette. Having those top RPI wins truly helped us.”
Michigan had three wins over those top-25 RPI teams and its worst loss was to the No. 65 team in the RPI.
“This team this year set out to reach this goal, and they were able to achieve it,” Barnes Arico said. “It’s a tremendous honor for them. They did it for the players that came before them that didn’t get to experience it, but they also did it for the Michigan women’s basketball team of 2017-18.”
Barnes Arico said she planned to immediately start studying film of Northern Colorado.
“I think you’re happy to be in but obviously the goal is to continue to win and to try to advance as far as you can,” she said. “I walk into practice every day this week and I look at Jillian and I look at Katelynn and I don’t want it to come to an end. I want to make sure we have as many days of walking into practice and seeing them there as we can because of who they are and what they mean to the program.”
Michigan vs. Northern Colorado
Tip-off: 5 Friday, Ferrell Center, Waco, Texas
Records: No. 7 Michigan 22-9, 10-6 Big Ten; No. 10 Northern Colorado 26-6, 14-3 Big Sky
Outlook: This is the Wolverines’ first NCAA Tournament spot since 2013, and seventh appearance overall. Michigan is 3-6 overall in the Tournament with first-round wins in 1990, 2001 and 2013. ... The Wolverines earned an at-large bid, Northern Colorado an automatic bid as the Big Sky Conference champion. ... The winner of this first-round game will face the winner of No. 2 seed Baylor (31-1) and No. 15 Grambling (19-13).