Michigan women seek to prove they’re NCAA-worthy
Ann Arbor — Michigan seniors Katelynn Flaherty and Jillian Dunston have been working for this moment since they were young girls learning the finer points of basketball.
And here it finally is, an appearance in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.
Michigan (22-9) earned a No. 7 seed as an at-large team and will face No. 10 seed Northern Colorado (26-6), which enters the tournament on a 13-game winning streak, Friday at 5 p.m. at Baylor’s Ferrell Center. The game will be carried live on ESPN2.
This is the Wolverines first NCAA Tournament appearance since the 2012-13 season and seventh overall. It is the first for the senior class, led by Flaherty, the program’s all-time leading scorer, and Dunston, voted to the Big Ten’s All-Defensive team. Last year after being snubbed by the NCAA Tournament, Dunston gathered her teammates and rallied them to focus on the WNIT. Michigan won the tournament, earning its first banner now hanging in the Crisler Center.
But this year, the Wolverines had to take the next step.
“I would call it a business year. We knew we had to take care of business,” Dunston said Wednesday before the team headed to Waco, Texas. “This was our main goal and now that we’ve gotten there, we just don’t want to show up. We want to continue to take care of business.”
Dunston admitted to some anxious moments while watching the Selection Show Monday night, sharing a chair with Flaherty, her roommate, who remained calm even though Michigan had not been called two and a half brackets in.
“I don’t think we’ll realize it until we get there and we get that little patch on our jersey. It still hasn’t hit me. It’s all a blur, but it’s so incredible,” Dunston said before describing her anxiety although she knew there was no way Michigan wouldn’t get an invite. “My body temperature dropped below freezing. I was shaking. Kate was cool, she kept it cool. I stopped watching the television.”
While they don’t want to settle on just being in the tournament, getting there has been a lifetime goal.
“We worked so hard to get to this point,” Flaherty said. “I know it’s both of our dreams as young girls to go to college and play in NCAA Tournaments, so to finally make it here our last year is really exciting.”
For coach Kim Barnes Arico, the NCAA Tournament is all about her team, of course, but she is particularly thrilled that Flaherty and Dunston will be able to share a national stage at this level. Both have been instrumental in Barnes Arico establishing the program.
Flaherty, with 2,738 career points, second most among active players, averages 23.2 points while Hallie Thome is averaging 17. Dunston is the emotional glue of the team, not to mention she averages 9.1 rebounds a game, is second in assists with 111 (Flaherty has a team-best 129) and leads the team with 52 steals. Dunson has 847 career rebounds, ranking third all-time at Michigan.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for our program, but for Jilli and Katelynn to be on the national scene, they’ve established themselves as two of the best players in the country,” Barnes Arico said. “And for the rest of the world to have an opportunity to see Katelynn Flaherty is really important. She’s been really special for us. It’s going to be great for her to be playing on national television and in front of a great crowd.”
Northern Colorado presents a challenge because of its 3-point shooting. Against Montana in the quarterfinals of the Big Sky Tournament, the Bears made 12 3-pointers, but their first nine baskets of the game were 3-pointers. They also are efficient from the free throw line and have made 85.2 percent this season.
The Bears also have won 13 straight entering the tournament to which they received an automatic bid after winning their league tournament.
“We’ve been focused on our defense,” Flaherty said Wednesday. “If we lock in defensively it should be a pretty good game.”
Barnes Arico said Northern Colorado reminds her of Villanova, which Michigan played last year in the WNIT. She went back to her pregame preparations for that game and has utilized some of those drills in practice to prepare for this game. This is not a style of offense Michigan typically sees in the Big Ten.
“We’ve been working on making sure that we’re covering that 3-point line, we’re contesting shots, give up the two before we give up the three,” Barnes Arico said. “They’re a team of great shooters. They’re an experienced, senior-laden team.”
With quality wins at Ohio State this season and at home against Maryland, the Wolverines feel confident heading into the NCAA Tournament. The winner of this game will face the winner of No. 2 Baylor and Grambling.
“We’re not afraid of any team,” Dunston said.
No. 10 Michigan vs. No. 7 Northern Colorado
Tip-off: 5 Friday, Ferrell Center, Waco, Texas
Records: No. 7 Michigan 22-9; No. 10 Northern Colorado 26-6
Up next: Winner faces either No. 2 Baylor or No. 15 Grambling on Sunday.