Feb. 24, 2017
By Steve Kornacki
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Building a program begins with setting the foundation, and that's where Siera Thompson and Danielle Williams entered the blueprint for success new coach Kim Barnes Arico was drawing up.
They filled the bill for two solid building blocks for the Michigan women's basketball team, and have been the players on which the current achievement was built. Players with better skills and higher ceiling levels would come in the next three classes, but they might not have chosen the Wolverines had they not found players who could be the glue and lead like Thompson and Williams.
Junior Katelynn Flaherty, sophomore Hallie Thome and freshman Kysre Gondrezick each scored between 20 and 25 points Thursday night (Feb. 23) to propel the Wolverines to an 88-60 win over Nebraska at Crisler Center, providing a fitting Senior Night sendoff for Thompson and Williams, the players they've voted in as their co-captains in successive seasons.
Thompson, who committed to Barnes Arico before ever visiting campus, is second in Michigan career assists (520) and three-pointers (234) and 10th in scoring (1,394 points) and has left her mark in box scores. Williams hasn't done as much of that, but supplies grit on the court as evidenced by her rebounding both of the first two shots the Cornhuskers missed in the game.
Still, both of them have done exactly what their coach had hoped for and more. They've been the rocks she could build upon, and No 25 Michigan (22-7, 11-4 Big Ten) sewed up third place with the victory. The Wolverines have only finished higher in the standings once (second in 1999-2000), and the overall victory total matches the program high.
"I don't even know if I can express what Siera and Danielle have meant to our program." Barnes Arico said. "They are two incredible, incredible young women who come from extraordinary families that have taught them all the right things. They have great character, they are caring and have such big hearts.
"When they packed their bags and flew half way around the country because they believed in a vision that Michigan women's basketball could have, and they wanted to be a part of that and build it. They said they wanted to come to Michigan and make this a top-20 program year in and year out, and for them to be seniors and potentially be the winningest players in program history as well as getting a top-20 ranking (Michigan was No. 20 one week ago), doing things that have never been done before, they are so deserving of it.
"They are two of our hardest workers, and what their leadership has meant to our upperclassmen and me personally -- taking a chance on a new coach -- was really special and will forever hold a place in my heart."
I asked the two seniors to reflect on what their coach has meant to them.
"Our relationship has grown so much," said Williams, the 5-foot-9 guard from Phoenix, Arizona. "Now I'm a senior, always sitting in her office and talking about life and basketball and our team. It's crazy, but I don't like to think about (leaving). There's still a lot of season left, and she's always believed in me, even when I struggled, and just tells me to keep going and doing what I'm doing on and off the court.
"She's an extraordinary coach and an awesome person, super passionate and super upbeat, and so knowledgeable. She'll draw up some plays...Her IQ is so unreal, but as a person, Mom and mentor, it's been a crazy four years, and I can't believe it's almost over."
Thompson added, "We have a great relationship. I came in believing what she was telling me, and her vision to do something that hasn't been done here. We believed in her, and that's the reason I came here without even visiting the campus and came so far away from home (in Gardena, California) by myself at 17 years old.
"And she has kept her promises and kept true to that the whole time I've been here."
They've been roommates for the past two school years, and so I asked each to reflect on what the other means to them.
"I say that Siera's the GOAT," said Williams. "But honestly, Siera is so consistent and calm. I almost don't have the words to describe her impact on the program and me every day. She's someone to look at who's always cool, calm and collected, and just gets it done. I think of her as someone who can just do it all. Siera is one-of-a-kind.
"Our team is never the same when she's not on the court. She runs our team so well and talks to everybody. People know her as quiet, but her voice is so, so powerful that it almost is loud. Every word counts and everyone has the utmost respect for her. I can look back at every single thing with her and say, 'You were there.' "
Thompson smiled when asked about Williams.
"She's a great person," said Thompson. "At the beginning of our relationship, coming here she was so quiet and shy. She would stay in the dorm the whole time and it was so hard to get her out the door. But as years have gone by, we've built the relationship where now we can go out and get something to eat.
"Building that trust with each other, I think we are so much alike. We're very chill and quiet, and bonded over that. In living with her, she's a great person and will do anything for you. She puts others before herself, and that's one of the best qualities about her. It's why our team is so great. Without Danielle, we wouldn't be the team we are today."
Thompson, the 5-7 point guard, had eight points, five assists, three rebounds and one steal in her final scheduled game at Crisler. Williams had four points, four rebounds, two assists and one steal.
They've won 83 games at Michigan to match the record total for four-year players set last season by Madison Ristovski and Kelsey Mitchell. But whereas the last three teams had to settle for WNIT postseason play, this team is headed to the NCAA Tournament after the Big Ten Tournament next week in Indianapolis.
"Everyone has a certain edge that we haven't had as a collective group," said Williams. "Everybody has an understanding that we really, really want to win, and want each other to do well and succeed. It's a special team."
The latest espnW NCAA bracketology has Michigan as a No. 7 seed in Austin, Texas, but regardless of where it is seeded or headed, it's going to the big tournament for the first time in four years.
"I'm really excited," said Thompson. "In the last three years, we've been on the outside looking in. You come to college to play in the NCAA Tournament and to experience that, and to now have that opportunity is great.
"It's great to come in and make history. That's what coach told us on our visit: 'Follow my vision, and you'll make history.' Now that I see it coming to light, it's a great feeling."
They've got more to accomplish, but got quite a sendoff at Crisler with their families in attendance.
"It was just awesome," said Williams. "We really needed this win coming off two tough losses, and to get back on the right track meant a lot to us. That's really what we were focused on tonight, but it hasn't really hit me yet. But my coach, teammates and family made tonight so special and so, so nice."
Thompson said, "It was just a surreal feeling. You get a lot of different emotions. You're sad, you're happy, you're anxious to play, and you have to try to control those emotions and do the different things you need to do for the team. It was just a great overall feeling."