Not long after Michigan won the Women’s NIT championship last April, shooting guard Katelynn Flaherty strolled into coach Kim Barnes Arico’s office for the standard player/coach postseason meeting, looking ahead to next season.
The Wolverines were losing team captain and four-year starting point guard Siera Thompson to graduation, and Arico debated whether to entrust the job to incoming freshman Deja Church or someone else. In that meeting, Flaherty, a 2,000-point scorer heading into her senior year, surprised Arico by volunteering to replace Thompson.
Arico was skeptical. Flaherty had been a point guard in high school in New Jersey, but this was the Big Ten — faster, more physical, with more on the line. Michigan needed Flaherty to score big to complement junior Hallie Thome inside, and asking Flaherty to do that while running the offense seemed too much. Arico knew this from personal experience as a guard at Montclair (New Jersey) State University in the early 1990s.
But Flaherty was adamant: I’ll work this summer on ballhandling and decision-making. I’ve got this. Trust me.
Eventually, Arico did.
“Usually every time Katelynn sets her mind to something and has a plan,” Arico said, “she’s been able to reach that goal.”
It hasn’t been easy. Five times this season Flaherty committed eight or more turnovers in a game, with a season-high 10 in a Feb. 4 loss at Rutgers. Her assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.07 isn’t the greatest. But for the most part, Flaherty found ways to score, distribute the ball and help the Wolverines win.
Shuttling between the point and the wing, she averaged 23.2 points per game, fifth-best nationally, while shooting 41.8 percent on 3-pointers. Earlier this season Flaherty surpassed Glen Rice as Michigan’s career scoring leader for men and women; she since pushed her total to 2,673 points. A three-time first-team All-Big Ten selection, Flaherty needs seven 3-pointers to join Ohio State’s Kelsey Mitchell as the only Division I women with 400 treys in a career.
Most importantly, the 22-9 Wolverines earned their first NCAA tournament bid since 2013, Arico’s first season in Ann Arbor. Michigan is the No. 7 seed in the Lexington Regional, and faces 10th-seeded Northern Colorado in Waco, Texas, in the first round Friday.
“It’s definitely been a transition, especially trying to play it at the college level,” Flaherty said. “It’s a lot faster than it is in high school.
“The biggest thing for me is, the past three years I had a point guard who got me great shots and got me the ball in great position, and my job was just score or get fouled or make an easy pass. Calling the right plays, putting people in the right positions while also trying to score, making the right decisions at certain points in the game, that’s been the biggest transition.”
Flaherty — whose Wolverines could potentially face second-seeded Baylor in the second round — had a practical consideration as well. At 5-foot-7, she isn’t tall enough to play wing in the WNBA or in Europe. Her future has to be at the point. Being able to score helps her chances, since today’s pro game demands point guards be offensive threats, too.
“At the next level, your 2s [shooting guards] and your 3s [small forwards] are huge,” Flaherty said. “I knew I had to run the point, and I thought this was good opportunity to get used to it. That was in the back of my mind, to learn this position for a year from Coach Arico rather than trying to learn at the next level and get thrown into it right away.”
Bloodlines suggested Flaherty had the aptitude. Her father, Tom, played guard at Seton Hall in the 1970s for Bill Raftery, now a CBS analyst, and coached high school basketball in New Jersey for more than 15 years. Her mother, Lynn, was a guard at the Division III College of New Jersey. Katelynn mainly ran point at Manasquan and Point Pleasant Beach high schools on the Jersey Shore, winning state titles with each school. At Manasquan, she shared the backcourt with future Notre Dame standouts Micheala and Marina Mabrey.
Tom Flaherty and a partner operate HoopsAmerica, a basketball academy with multiple New Jersey locations. Last summer Katelynn intended to work on her ballhandling at HoopsAmerica and anywhere else she could find games.
But a week into the summer, Tom said, Katelynn suffered a herniated disk in her back when a defender clobbered her going for a layup at HoopsAmerica. Contact drills and pickup games were out for six weeks while Katelyn received physical therapy. So Tom had Katelynn dribble a basketball while walking a mile every day near their Point Pleasant Beach home, along with hoisting 800 to 1,000 shots a day.
“It didn’t look promising at all,” Tom said. “We were diligent. We didn’t go too hard. But with physical therapy and with basketball shooting, walking around the block, we were doing 3½ hours a day.”
The final three weeks, Katelynn eased back into two-on-two and three-on-three pickup games, then full court. Games often took place at Orchard Park, a lightly used outdoor court with lights her father discovered years earlier in Wall Township, two towns over from Point Pleasant Beach.
“My dad has been my coach basically my whole life, and he still plays a major role,” Katelynn said. “When I go home I work out four or five hours a day. A lot of that is playing games and also getting shots up. But the ballhandling aspect, it’s more finding more games, five-on-fives, full-court pickup games. That really helped me out a lot.”
When Katelynn returned to Ann Arbor, Arico ran her through so-called “blood drills,” requiring her to read and react to defenses while being bumped or double-teamed. There was film work, too, with Arico showing Flaherty clips of former Washington standout Kelsey Plum coming off ball screens.
“She’s always facing people who are [taller] and stronger than her,” Arico said. “She’s got to use her creativity and ballhandling to get past bigger, faster people. We work on it every day. We put guys [male practice players] on her a lot, which she hates, but we think it’s helpful. We’ve done a number of things so she’s prepared for any situation she could see.”
Flaherty showed some of that growth in a late-season game at Minnesota, though the Wolverines lost. Early on, Flaherty delivered a snappy bounce pass inside to Akienreh Johnson for a layup, the first of Flaherty’s six assists in the first half.
With Michigan trailing at halftime, Flaherty switched to the wing and looked more for her shot. Flaherty heated up quickly, hitting five 3-pointers among 19 points in the second half. None of Minnesota’s guards could stop her, so in the fourth quarter Minnesota coach Marlene Stollings put 6-foot-2 forward Taiye Bello on her. Michigan took a nine-point lead in the third quarter but couldn’t hold on, losing 93-87. Flaherty finished with 26 points and seven assists, along with a manageable four turnovers.
“I think the transition has gone really well,” Flaherty said. “Some games, it’s been tough. But for me it’s been great. It’s definitely a learning experience. I’ve become a lot better passer, a lot better ball handler and playmaker. I think it’s really added to my game.”
At times, Flaherty still struggles with decision-making and ballhandling. The transition remains a work in progress. Arico praised Flaherty’s diligence in correcting mistakes and moving forward.
“This is her first season of handling the ball all the time, and she’s going against so much pressure,” Arico said. “There are days when she turns the ball over, and the next day she’s back in the gym and watching the film. It’s not like, ‘That’s OK, I’m going to be fine.’ It’s, ‘What can I watch, how can I get better?’ She invests an incredible amount of time in all aspects that are going to help her be successful.”