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Sunday, March 18, 2012
Women's hoops charting better course

By Michael Rothstein

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- There was this feeling two weeks ago, even if Courtney Boylan couldn't figure it out.

This sense that this season would not end the same. That after two years of missing the NCAA tournament on the bubble, it wouldn't happen again.

It didn't.

Michigan will play in its first NCAA tournament since 2000-01 today when the No. 11 Wolverines face No. 6 Oklahoma. The hump that seemed to hang over this program is, for the moment, gone.

Courtney Boylan
Senior guard Courtney Boylan came to a moribund program in 2008 and has seen a lot of progress during her four years.
“The hump is a big one. It’s tough,” Boylan said. “We’ve had some tough end of the years. The difference between this year and last year was getting that Big Ten tournament win. You look at it, that was the same situation last year, we were playing a lower seed, Illinois again, and you’re finally able to put it together, even after all the struggles we had.

“That was the difference. Getting over the hump.”

That hump has been around the Michigan women’s basketball program for over a decade. It was here when Sue Guevara left. When Cheryl Burnett came and left and then when Kevin Borseth took over five seasons ago, inheriting a program with no fan base and little tradition.

Borseth began to change it -- starting with a surprisingly successful first season and a WNIT berth. Then, with his first true recruiting class: Boylan and senior forward Carmen Reynolds.

“They were the start,” Borseth said. “The kids we’ve brought in here since we got here, the goal was to get into that tournament, but I think the success of your program is measured by your ability to get into that NCAA tournament. Everybody knows that.

“If you get in, everybody knows it and if you don’t get in, everybody knows it.”

Borseth's second season -- Boylan and Reynolds' first -- was difficult. A 10-20 record. Friction brought on by transition. So things had to change and did when Borseth brought in a massive recruiting class the following year to join Reynolds and Boylan.

The next year, Michigan won games consistently -- something that had not happened with the Michigan women’s basketball program in a long time. They started to change the culture. They believed in themselves and in what Borseth was trying to do.

It began with Michigan’s lone senior last season, Veronica Hicks, and carried over into Reynolds and Boylan -- two gym junkies who would spent hour upon hour working on their shots, even when no one else was around.

“Roni had a lot to do with it,” Reynolds said. “We just carried that on. It takes a lot, that extra sense of want and need and desire to get it done and I think that was increasingly there year after year and we were close and closer.

“Now, we’re finally there and got it.”

It was a situation, though, that Michigan didn’t expect. Reynolds went into Monday night’s selection show thinking she’d go her whole career without playing in the NCAA tournament. Boylan was hopeful, but wasn't positive. The rest of Michigan’s players felt similar.

But Michigan's name came up early and the players screamed. Boylan cried. Reynolds bawled. Because after four years, after a decade, Michigan was heading back to the NCAA tournament.

“Most of us were speechless,” junior guard Jenny Ryan said. “We didn’t really know what to feel.”

In many ways, the other inhabitants in the newly-built William Davidson Player Development Center could relate. The Michigan men’s basketball team, whose season ended on Friday in a 65-60 upset loss to Ohio in the Round of 64 of the NCAA tournament, was built in much the same way as the women’s team.

Both had coaches come in five years ago taking over programs not accustomed to winning enough. Both had two underrecruited and undersized players most thought little of as the major pieces of their first recruiting class.

And both coaches built around those pieces -- Zack Novak and Stuart Douglass on the men’s side and Boylan and Reynolds on the women’s. The men, who had been closer at the outset to climbing back to the NCAA tournament, got there faster.

But the building was the same process.

“Our two programs are really like ham and eggs,” Borseth said. “We really work together well.”

It was a relationship the past five years that went through a lot of transition. From an initial shared practice space in the Crisler Center to being in side-by-side trailers for a year separated by a wooden walkway to now, sharing a practice center, workout facilities and that same arena, these two coaches and programs have been somewhat linked.

“It was big for them to make the tournament,” Novak said. “That was huge. We were all rooting for them. We see how hard they work and those girls are in here working all the time, Courtney and Carmen for the last four years are in the gym constantly.

“To see the sacrifices they make, to see that rewarded it feels good for us because we know what they’ve gone through.”

For the first time since 1997-98, both programs made the NCAA tournament. And with much of their teams returning next season -- save for those undervalued recruits turned senior leaders -- they are both heading in a positive direction.