April 1, 2017
By Steve Kornacki
DETROIT, Mich. -- It was quite a one-two punch for the University of Michigan women's basketball team:
Hoist the trophy.
Hang the banner.
The WNIT trophy came after a grueling, emotion-packed game with Georgia Tech that took three overtimes to decide. And when it was over, Michigan was an 89-79 winner, and Wolverine head coach Kim Barnes Arico sent senior co-captains Siera Thompson, who played all 55 minutes, and Danielle Williams out to accept and raise the wooden trophy with a bronze basketball atop it.
"Those two have meant everything to our program," said Barnes Arico, in explaining her decision to have Thompson and Williams get the trophy. "The disappointment that they experienced without being invited to the NCAA Tournament was devastating.
"But those two deserve this. This was for them and for their commitment to our program."
The banner will come at a ceremony next season at Crisler Center, which was occupied for another event Saturday (April 1) that required the title game be moved to the University of Detroit's Calihan Hall.
In the joyous postgame locker room, the Wolverines chanted: "WE GOT THE BANNER! WE GOT THE BANNER! WE GOT THE BANNER!"
Over and over, they shouted those four words with force and joy.
"That moment will live forever with us," said sophomore forward/guard Nicole Munger. "It will be up in the rafters of Crisler forever. When we come back in 20 years, our team is going to be up there as the first banner Michigan women's basketball has ever had.
"We looked at that empty spot up there every day, and now we're filling it."
The Wolverines have never finished higher than third place in the Big Ten regular season and hadn't claimed a conference or national tournament championship until finishing this season with six consecutive WNIT wins and a 28-9 record that contained six more wins than any previous team achieved.
"To get that banner for our senior class is just incredible," said Barnes Arico. "They mean so much to this program."
One by one, Michigan's players took turns extending and then deciding the championship game.
Munger scored seven of the 13 points Michigan tallied in the final overtime stanza.
"I think I had a little bit of an advantage," said Munger, who came off the bench for 12 points, four rebounds and two steals in 25 minutes. "I came in a little bit fresher than the other nine players on the court, and Hallie (Thome) made a great pass to me, and the three fell for me. From there on, I was so confident. They were yelling at me to shoot the ball.
"My teammates made the passes and made it happen, and we fought the whole game through. Jillian (Dunston) told me, 'These better be the most confident five minutes you ever play.'"
The gritty Munger provided the final momentum-swinging punch for the Wolverines in a basketball game that played out like a title fight, legs growing wearier with each passing minute and every punch absorbed.
WNIT MVP Katelynn Flaherty came on strong in the second half -- hitting two ice-water-in-the-veins treys in the final 1:06 of regulation -- to score 27 points and force overtime.
"I knew we were down and had two good opportunities to shoot the ball," Flaherty said. "I finally relaxed and knew I had to do it."
Flaherty shook her fist and smiled after tying the score with 10 seconds remaining, and Dunston grabbed and shook Flaherty in a show of emotion.
"She is the most clutch human being I have ever played with," said Dunston. "She missed the easier ones and made the harder ones. It was an unconscious shot (to tie the game), and I'm just so proud of her."
Flaherty became the second Wolverine to surpass 2,000 points in the game and has 2,019 with her senior season remaining.
Thome provided the early scoring punch to finish with 25 points, seven rebounds and three blocked shots.
"I just took advantage of mismatches and one-on-one opportunities in the post," said the left-hander who has such great touch down low and reached 20 points in four of six WNIT games.
Thome joined Flaherty on the all-tournament team.
Dunston grabbed rebound after rebound, finishing with a team-high 13 and dominated the second overtime by notching four points and four rebounds.
"I just gave it my all," said Dunston. "There's no tomorrow to save anything for."
Thompson never left the court, directing the action all the way and closing her career with 13 points and eight assists.
"I was tired," said Thompson, "but I didn't want to be on the bench. I wanted to be on the court. I had to push through the fatigue and help the team get the win."
It was fitting that the game ended with Williams making a steal, wrestling the ball away and safely firing it to Thome, before Thompson dribbled away the final seconds and tossed the ball underhanded some 30 feet high.
"It was surreal," said Thompson. "You dream about that when you're a kid, winning a championship in college."
Williams said, "This was something the whole team worked so hard for this season, and we definitely earned it. It's awesome and unreal."
The seniors were touched that their coach had them accept the trophy on behalf of the team.
"That's a testament to the great coach that Coach Arico is," said Thompson, who finished with a school-record 553 assists. "She knew how much it meant to me and Danielle, and I am so happy for my teammates and coaches.
"Me and Danielle are so happy and humbled that we were able to do this as a class. It was a long battle, but at the end we came out on top, and that feels good."
Flaherty said, "It was so great to do this for our seniors, and it feels great to be champions."
They had endured a severe challenge from Georgia Tech, which could've won it with six-tenths of a second remaining in regulation had Elo Edeferioka hit either of her two free throws.
The Yellowjackets had two starters foul out. However, nobody fouled out for Michigan, and Dunston, Flaherty and Thome joined Thompson in the 50-minute club. What enabled them to dig down deep on the verge of exhaustion?
"They were just going to die out there," said Barnes Arico, "but we wore the other team down. I joked with them before the game about all the running and conditioning we have them do. But we were in better shape than any team we played in this WNIT, and it paid dividends today."
Flaherty said, "You're tired, but that doesn't matter anymore. All that running Coach (Barnes Arico) had us do paid off. Even though you are fatigued, you can't let it get to you. It has to be a mindset. All the hard work was worth it."
Barnes Arico -- whose family vacation to the Panhandle city of Destin, Florida, had to be delayed a day because the length of the game caused them to miss a flight south -- left the arena holding the net from the end of the court where Flaherty hit those crucial treys.
She climbed the ladder and hung from the rim for a few seconds, snipped the last strand of nylon holding the net and turned around waving the net in one hand before raising both arms atop the ladder and screaming for joy.
Her team had counter-punched its way to victory, defying the logic that said their legs had turned to lead.
"We just had a refuse-to-lose mentality," said Barnes Arico. "We felt like people took stuff from us all year long. We didn't get selected to the NCAA (Tournament), and I think they wanted to prove to the world that (the NCAA committee) had made a mistake.
"So, they refused to go away, and it was just awesome to watch with different players making different plays at different times."
They grinded their way to a championship.
"This is going to be the sweetest exhaustion these Michigan players have ever felt in their lives," Matt Park, the radio voice of the Wolverines told his listeners near the end of this classic game.
And so it was.
Sweet exhaustion reigned.
Hoist the Trophy.
Raise the Banner.