Ann Arbor – The Michigan women’s basketball team will find out Monday if it is in the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year. But based on the way the Wolverines finished the season, their selection as an at-large team should be a no-brainer.
They won eight of their final nine regular-season games, then beat Wisconsin in double-overtime last week in the Big Ten tournament before falling by a point against top-seed Maryland in the semifinals. Coach Kim Barnes Arico has built a formidable team that features five freshmen and three sophomores, plus key players in senior co-captains Hallie Thome and Nicole Munger. Michigan is 21-11 and finished fourth in the Big Ten.
“A lot of media outlets are saying it’s a scary time to be playing Michigan,” Thome said Wednesday. “So we all have confidence in ourselves. We’re pretty bummed about (losing to Maryland), but that lights the fire. It sucks we lost, but like I told Munger after the game, I’d rather lose here than in the NCAA Tournament against a team like that. We learned what it felt like, and we have that pit in our stomach to make sure it doesn’t happen in the NCAA.”
Wait. Back up. Thome calls her teammate and roommate by her last name?
“She’s not 'Nicole,'” Thome said.
“No one calls me Nicole,” Munger said. “Even in my hometown, no one calls me Nicole.”
“Munger just fits her more,” Thome said. “It sounds more … gritty.”
For the record, Thome, who is 6-foot-5, is referred to by coaches and teammates as “Big Girl.” So this year it has been the Big Girl and Munger Show. Thome was recently named first team All-Big Ten for the second straight year and joined the rarefied air of the 2,000-point club at Michigan. Munger is the heart and soul of the team, and together, Big Girl and Munger have guided the ship following the graduation of UM all-time leading scorer Katelynn Flaherty and defensive stopper Jillian Dunston, and shaped it in a new way. Their way.
Thome, they agree, is the calm, collected part of the duo, the voice of reason on the team, while Munger is the give-up-the-body-for-the-team-the-team-the-team player. Thome preaches to her teammates to “play hard and have fun,” and Munger apparently interprets that as play hard and dive for every loose ball, even if it’s in a late-season practice. While still having fun, of course.
“Even Coach (on Tuesday) was like, ‘Can we not have Munger Mania this week because we need you for the tournament,’” Thome said, laughing. “You know if there’s a 50-50 ball, she’s going to be the first one on the floor.”
Or in the band section.
Earlier in the season at Indiana, Munger put up a shot.
“Air ball,” Thome said. “Pretty bad.”
“It was so bad,” Munger said, confirming Thome’s retelling of the scene.
“But for some reason she thought she could get it and took off and went into the band,” Thome said. “The next day Munger was like, ‘Hallie, look at this bruise.’ I asked, 'What that is from?' She said, ‘It’s from the trombone.’ So yes, it’s Munger Mania.”
The underclassmen performed a skit and poked some fun at their co-captains. One player, portraying Munger, did a lot of crazy things, and the other player portraying Thome, just rolled her eyes and sighed.
“But this is how we complement each other,” Munger said. “I’m crazy and I know it.”
And their yin-yang relationship is the reason why the Wolverines have had such a strong late-season push. Barnes Arico did not know what to expect once the Wolverines’ outstanding Flaherty and Dunston moved on after graduation. She has been overjoyed by the leadership of Thome and Munger.
“What they have brought has been incredible and probably exceeded any expectations I could have imagined,” Barnes Arico said. “One of the scariest things for Munger coming in, she was always the work-hard kid and everybody put her over here: She’s a hard worker but not everybody listens to her and follows her. But our freshmen class, they embraced who she was from the minute they got on campus. When you’re grown up you have an appreciation what Nicole Munger brings, but when you’re a teen-age kid, you don’t really get it. ‘What is this crazy kid doing? Is she really this genuine? Is she really for real?’ Our freshman class embraced that and that let Nicole really be who she has always wanted to be. That really helped our program take off."
Thome has been able to enjoy a new on-court role this season. She had always been relied on as the Wolverines’ second-go-to scorer behind Flaherty. But now there are so many different players capable of taking charge each game, Thome can exercise other parts of her game. Barnes Arico pointed to the Penn State game when Thome went 0-for-11 shooting but had eight assists, and the Wolverines still won.
“She’s had to be a scorer, but this year she can go out and not feel the pressure from as scoring standpoint or a rebounding standpoint for us to succeed in the game,” Barnes Arico said. “She’s not pressing. In the past she pressed to make a play. Now, she doesn’t feel that way.”
Munger and Thome were never intimidated by the prospect of being leaders this season. They felt like they had been the “organizers” in previous seasons, so they slipped into this season working to determine their voices as leaders. They’re about spreading the wealth, and that has included getting the freshmen involved from the get-go. Munger also pointed out fellow senior Samantha Trammel, who hasn’t had many minutes, but has been invaluable for in-game information and getting across to them what she’s seeing from opponents.
“We’ve incorporated all of our team to become leaders this year, so from freshmen to seniors, and all in between, we’ve challenged everyone,” Thome said. “We’ve delegated a lot this year, so everyone has a role. That’s something that’s special about this team, and it shows on the court. Everyone is contributing, and everyone knows what they need to do, and that pays dividends in the end.”
This will be their last postseason tournament. Thome has an internship at Nike lined up later in the spring, and Munger wants to be a coach and hopes to become a graduate assistant somewhere. They intend to play many more games during March Madness.
“This year, Hallie has emphasized it and I’ve followed it, ‘play hard, work hard,’ and that’s all I can control,” Munger said. “If you play hard and have fun, there are no regrets. We tried our hardest in Indy and we showed a lot of teams and the NCAA committee, hopefully, what we can do. We showed ourselves we’re right there and can compete with anybody.”