Ask Kim Barnes Arico about her star point guard, and the Michigan women’s basketball coach will give you an honest answer.
No, she didn’t think Katelynn Flaherty would score over 2,000 points. No, she definitely didn’t think Flaherty would become the leading scorer in school history.
On Nov. 16, Flaherty topped Diane Dietz’s career mark with 23 points in a loss to No. 5 Louisville. And on Jan. 13, she shattered Glen Rice’s school record of 2,442 points in a win over Nebraska.
Scoring is what Flaherty, now with 2,478 career points, has always done. She never has been the biggest or most athletic. She has faced exotic defenses — box-and-ones, triangle-and-twos — throughout her life.
Yet none of that seems to stop her.
“Here you have this little 5-foot-7 guard that owns the Michigan scoring record now — like who would’ve ever thought it?” said Lynn Flaherty, Katelynn’s mother. “Because I say, if you just see Katelynn walking down the street, you would probably never even pick her out to be a basketball player sometimes.”
A legend grows
The myth of Katelynn Flaherty began over a decade ago.
Flaherty, whom Barnes Arico described as a “playground legend,” grew up in New Jersey, the daughter of two parents very familiar with college basketball.
Tom Flaherty played at Seton Hall, and Lynn played at The College of New Jersey.
Naturally, Katelynn fell in love with basketball at a young age, distinguishing herself from her peers.
She played her first organized game as a kindergartner, though the experience was technically against the rules — Flaherty wasn’t old enough for the league, which was for first-graders. Teams played with lowered baskets and weren’t allowed to play defense outside the 3-point line.
She took advantage quickly.
“Katelynn was smart,” Lynn said. “She was able to shoot from back there, and nobody could bother her because you weren’t allowed to come out there.”
“I remember coming up and shooting, and people were like, ‘They’re not supposed to be able to shoot from that far!’ ” Flaherty recalled. “Somehow they went in, so I think that was funny. But yeah, I probably was the only person who could do that at that age.”
Not all of Flaherty’s exploits took place inside the gym.
She played pickup games against other children at a local park. Then she would head home to work on shooting with her dad.
While Flaherty was still a young child, her parents bought two hoops: one regulation-sized, the other portable and adjustable.
As she grew up, she only shot on the latter, so as not to ruin her form. But by the time she was in “third or fourth grade,” Flaherty was strong enough to move on to the regulation-sized basket.
With the moves she learned from the playground and a highly developed shot, it wasn’t long before Flaherty made a bigger name for herself.
After one particular game in which she hit five 3s, a man walked up to her parents, asked for their daughter’s name, and said, “I’m going to remember her, because I know she’s going to be great one day.”
Flaherty was in fourth grade.
“For someone to just watch a few games, to look at me and how I am, the size I am, and to say that I’ll be this great player, I think it’s incredible,” Flaherty said. “It definitely gives you a lot of confidence to see someone outside of your circle believe in you.”
Years later, when she was a highly recruited prospect, she ran into the man again.
“He said, ‘I told you,’ ” Flaherty recalled.
In Barnes Arico she trusts
So why Michigan?
Flaherty had offers from numerous programs, all with longer histories of success than the Wolverines.
But those other schools didn’t have Barnes Arico.
While at St. John’s, where she coached from 2002-12, Barnes Arico had a wide survey of the local talent.
One day, her husband heard from a colleague about a little girl who was “the best kid he had ever seen” and she only was in third grade.
Barnes Arico kept the name in the back of her mind. Three years later, she got a chance to see for herself when she watched Flaherty live for the first time.
It was a lasting impression.
“She just was an incredible scorer and had an incredible feel for the game and had such a great touch and such great finishing moves,” Barnes Arico said. “You could tell she really spent a lot of time working on her game.
“Sometimes you see kids that are really special at that young an age. But she was just different. To be able to do the things that she can do at such a young age was really incredible.”
Barnes Arico kept tabs on Flaherty throughout her career. She recruited her while at St. John’s, but Flaherty was looking for a different academic fit.
When Barnes Arico took the Michigan job, her first call was to Flaherty.
Her pitch resonated with the four-star recruit. Flaherty liked the idea of building a program. She already had done it before, first with the New Jersey Demons, an AAU team that Flaherty stuck with even when more prestigious, Nike-sponsored programs came calling. And then as a junior in high school, she led Point Pleasant Beach to a 26-2 record and a NJSIAA Group I title only one year after the team finished 4-14.
“Coach Arico sold me her vision and told me she was going to turn this program around,” Flaherty said. “I wanted to do something different and not be like everybody else, and I think that’s why I chose here.”
Shoot like Steph
Flaherty arrived in Ann Arbor with a strong pedigree and a significant amount of hype.
Yet she quickly found things weren’t as easy as they had been.
After suffering a Lisfranc injury during her senior year of high school, Flaherty needed time to get back to speed. While she found her shot quickly despite not being able to shoot for much of her recovery, Flaherty struggled with conditioning, defense and simply trusting her body.
She still led the team in her first year with 14.3 points per game, earning Big Ten Sixth Player of the Year. But Flaherty returned home that summer with a goal: to become an even better scorer.
She did so by going back to her roots: pickup basketball.
“I think that really helped my game and made me a better 1-on-1 player,” Flaherty said, “so when I go into the game and I have to beat my defender, who’s faster, bigger, stronger than me, it gave me a way to beat someone.”
According to Barnes Arico, Flaherty also had to improve her shot selection, how she moved without the ball and how she dealt with increased attention from opposing defenses.
Former assistant coach Megan Duffy, who played at Notre Dame and had a brief WNBA career, took Flaherty under her wing.
She taught Flaherty how to change speeds, use screens and get her shot off — with some assistance from the Warriors’ Steph Curry, whose film the pair studied together.
“You look at him, and he’s not the most physical specimen that you’ve seen, right?” said Duffy, now the head coach at Miami (Ohio). “And she really got into that, being like, ‘Oh yeah, I can do that, I can shoot some of the same shots.’
“I think there’s a lot of kids that want to shoot it like Steph Curry, but she’s probably the closest one of being automatic when her feet are set and her shoulders are square.”
Flaherty is only 157 points from breaking Curry’s college scoring mark of 2,635 points, which seems likely considering No. 19 Michigan has a minimum of 10 games remaining and she averages 23.0 points.
After winning last year’s NIT to hang the first banner in program history, Flaherty and Michigan want more. An NCAA tournament bid that would be the first of her career seems likely, especially after beating No. 8 Ohio State on the road last week — a win that Flaherty says she’ll remember for the rest of her life.
Barnes Arico believes Flaherty already has left a legacy, regardless of whether the undersized point guard can lead her team on one final postseason run.
“She’s been the difference in our program,” Barnes Arico said. “Everybody in the state of New Jersey wants to be the next Katelynn Flaherty. … But I also think she’s become a household name around the country in what she’s been able to achieve and what our team has been able to achieve this season.”