STANFORD, Calif. — Jenny Ryan carried around a rope after Michigan's latest win as a symbolic gesture by the senior point guard, who understands it's her duty to keep everything going.
To keep a special season going after a year of change in Ann Arbor with a new coach.
Ryan and Michigan's close-knit senior class will continue this memorable March run for at least one more game. All along, they have said they want to keep playing together as long as possible.
Kate Thompson hit a key 3-pointer down the stretch and another late jumper to finish with 17 points, and the eighth-seeded Wolverines overcame a cold-shooting first half to beat ninth-seeded Villanova 60-52 in the first round of the NCAA tournament Sunday night.
"Throughout the season we've passed it along," Ryan said of the rope, which stems from an October team-building retreat. "Whenever someone did something good they got to hold it. I've had it for a significant amount of time. I wanted it back. I got it back, just because we needed our seniors to carry us at the end."
Ryan added 13 points, three assists and two steals as Michigan's starting lineup featuring four seniors extended their season by shooting 61.9 percent in the second half.
And it gets tougher now. Michigan (22-10) will face top-seeded Stanford (32-2), a 72-56 winner over Tulsa in Sunday's first game, on the Cardinal's home floor at Maples Pavilion on Tuesday night for a spot in the Spokane Regional semifinals next weekend.
Perhaps it is fitting Michigan's players are wearing bright yellow warmup shirts that read "Rise to the Occasion."
First-year Wolverines coach Kim Barnes Arico lost to top-seeded Stanford in the second round two years ago while at St. John's.
"We've watched games across the country the last couple of days where upsets happen," Barnes Arico said. "Those things happen when you hang around and hang around and hang around."
Michigan's second-leading scorer Rachel Sheffer had 16 points and matched her career high with 13 rebounds for her sixth straight game scoring in double figures.
Laura Sweeney scored 16 points, including the first seven of the game before getting in foul trouble. Devon Kane added 12 to lead Villanova (21-11).
In this evenly played matchup with five ties and five lead changes. Neither team led by more than nine points until Michigan briefly built a late 10-point advantage.
Villanova inbounded the ball in front of its bench and near its own basket with 4:24 to play and trailing 47-43, but Sheffer batted down a pass into the post and the Wolverines gained possession. Thompson knocked down a 3-pointer from the top of the arc moments later, one of the three total she made.
"When you get the lead it's so much different," Villanova coach Harry Perretta said. "It's difficult to play from behind in a game because if you make one error, which we did, then they can go up three or four points and the pressure comes back to you."
Nya Jordan added 12 points and nine rebounds to help Michigan to a 39-28 rebounding advantage. She also had three assists and one of five steals by the Wolverines, who are playing in back-to-back NCAA tournaments for the first time since 2000-01.
The No. 8 seed also matches the highest ever for the program.
While Michigan made 13 of its 21 second-half shots to finish at 47.8 percent, Villanova shot just 33.9 percent with a 6-for-26 showing from 3-point range.
The Wildcats, who had won three straight before losing to Syracuse in the Big East tournament, also reached the free throw line only six times compared to Michigan's 11-for-13 performance.
This marked the first meeting between the programs, but not so for the coaches on either bench.
Barnes Arico is in her first season coaching at Michigan against a familiar face in mentor and 35th-year Villanova coach Perretta – and he actually recommended her for the new job in Ann Arbor.
Barnes Arico spent the past 10 seasons at St. John's and faced Perretta in the Big East, going 5-6 against his teams.
She has reached five NCAA tournaments and four in a row, and her teams have always won at least one game. The Wolverines kept that impressive streak going.
Last season, St. John's lost to Duke in the Fresno Regional semifinal.
In sticking to her new school's colors, Barnes Arico sported open-toe maize stilettos with a blue pedicure.
Michigan built a 26-17 lead on Thompson's jumper with 3:54 remaining in the first to cap an 8-0 spurt featuring a pair of 3s by Ryan, but didn't score again while going 0 for 5 with two turnovers. The Wildcats scored seven unanswered points, including the final four from Kane, to pull within 26-24 at the break.
The two games Sunday at Maples drew 5,206 fans.
Michigan knows what it will face with Stanford's home crowd Tuesday.
"We're going to prepare for Stanford like any other game," Ryan said. "We have a lot of confidence to beat any team in the country."