Getting past the agony of Michigan's defeat

USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes when the words simply aren't coming as I want to them to, I take a step back and wonder why. That's how I arrived at writing this piece about my alma mater instead of any number of Sweet 16 preview angles - I couldn't seem to get this game off my mind. My apologies in advance.

An outstanding year for Michigan Wolverines basketball fans continued last night with Trey Burke's heroics propelling the men's team to the Elite Eight for the first time since the remaining four of the Fab Five did it in 1994.

The game was an example of why we get so wrapped up in March Madness, if not the epitome of it: unpredictability, heroes either made or simply adding to their legacy and heartbreak that you probably wouldn't wish on anyone (except Michigan State or Ohio State because...).

Although the book on the 2012-13 women's team is now closed, they also managed to find their way into milestone territory becoming just the third team in program history to advance to the second round. And despite hitting a major roadblock at Maples Pavilion, they leave fans with plenty to be proud of.

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There was a point in the Michigan Wolverines' 73-40 loss to the Stanford Cardinal on Tuesday night when it looked like the realization that her career was coming to an end finally set in for point guard Jenny Ryan.

After opposing point guard Amber Orrange had driven right past her for an uncontested layup to put Stanford up by 32 points with a little more than 12 minutes left, Ryan let out a demoralized sign and briefly hung her head in the spot Orrange had left her in the middle of the key before accepting the inbounds pass.

Seeing Ryan, a hard-nosed player who just never seems to quit, beginning to shot signs of devastation was just painful to watch. And yet the player who wouldn't be deterred by a badly sprained ankle against arch rival Michigan State despite visibly limping around the court had showed signs of total defeat at the hands of the Cardinal.

It wasn't at all that representative play that sort of sums up 40 minutes of basketball activity in one neat moment from which beautiful narratives are written. To the contrary, Stanford had beaten Michigan in just about every other way imaginable prior to that point, but none more notable than shooting a scorching 8-for-14 from the 3-point line. They found themselves down by 30 early in the second half in a game that ended up being something of a celebration of Cardinal success past and present as the crowd erupted in cheers between possessions when the jumbotron showed the faces of former players like Jayne Appel and current players like Toni Kokenis.


From Stanford women's basketball.

Yet at no point on that night did I feel worse for Ryan or that senior class that after that layup by Orrange.

It's impossible to know what Ryan was feeling at that moment. Surely part of it was indeed reality setting in, another part that it had simply been a long night after what had to be enormous anticipation for a game of this magnitude - only two other teams in the history of the program had made it this far and neither had survived. This 2012-13 team was on the brink of suffering the same fate.

And maybe more than anything that was the moment where I most felt for Ryan or maybe where her body language reflected what was humanly at stake in the moment: the almost tragic culmination of years of effort poured into an endeavor that ended in a fashion that could easily make one wonder whether Michigan even deserved to be there.

Of course, the lopsided outcome reflects a truth that any hopeful fan would try to put off in favor of faith in their team when they show up at a foreign arena in their school's colors and cheer along to the fight song: the fact is that even in being among the final 32 teams in the nation playing for a national championship, Michigan is just not near Stanford in the top-heavy women's basketball landscape. Yes it was a milestone season for the Wolverines, which by their standards simply meant tying a program-high with 22 wins for a fifth place finish in the Big Ten; to the Cardinal fans yelling at refs for more favorable calls during a rout that would take them to the Sweet 16, such a season would feel like a disappointment.

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SB Nation prides itself on a foundation of fan passion and mine probably got the better of me after this game: I sort of sulked that night, couldn't write about it, delayed the next day by posting updates on other games, still couldn't write about it, then spent two days just not essentially writing a thing.

Whereas others thrive at writing through their emotions publicly, I sort of hate doing it and often find ways to avoid it.

Ultimately I was actually excited just to be there at Maples rooting for my team with a chance to move on - coaches and players would probably never go into a game saying they're just happy to be there, but there is something to be said for even being on the same stage as a program like Stanford with a shot, no matter how slim, at making that first Sweet 16 appearance. I'd be lying if I said that watching that debacle unfold wasn't agonizing, but those first two rounds were an amazing experience as someone who hadn't seen a Michigan women's game in over a decade. And maybe I just wasn't interested in putting this season - and the careers of this senior class - to rest with a final summative piece.

Even though I expected the end to come when it did - though not nearly as badly - I'm not sure I was ready to accept it in quite that way. Maybe I wanted to see more fight or a late run so people could say what they said about Tulsa's game against Stanford: something the long the lines of "they put up a great fight" or "they played with a lot of heart". Instead, there was just this kind of this mixed feeling: the Wolverines are still nowhere near the level of the nation's elite, but they're also clearly a rising program.

It was hard to reconcile that while sitting in Maples with Stanford fans gleefully celebrating their team's routine run through the tournament, but we also have to put the season in perspective: Michigan's seniors forged the way toward uncharted territory having gone from making a WNIT appearance to getting a NCAA bid to now winning a game in three consecutive seasons. And unlike many programs that find newfound success on the backs of seniors, the Michigan program is in great hands with Kim Barnes Arico. She has proven she can get the job done, the recruiting opportunities are there in the midwest, and Michigan's fans can at least be encouraged by an upward trajectory despite a devastating loss.

That's what was so exciting about getting to be there for that game: the chance to see this program taking that next step, even if they tripped and fell. And sometimes all you can hope for as a fan is that the stumbles along the way make the kind of success that Stanford fans expect that much sweeter.

Shout out to Shannon for the tickets to Michigan's games. For more on the tournament and updates on Stanford's progress, check out our Spokane region storystream.

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