Act Like You've Never Been There
Or, in the case of Laila Phelia, stay cool no matter what. Also: Hillmon family forever, Amy Dilk stays ready, a potential lineup change, and a look at Louisville.
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The Joyful Goliath
I’ve never seen a team in a narrative bind quite like Michigan during Saturday’s Sweet Sixteen victory.
The Wolverines were the name-brand, power-conference three-seed against the underdog South Dakota, a Summit League school with an enrollment under 6,000. They were, as the ESPN announcing crew repeatedly said, “supposed to be here.”
Stereotypically, those teams play the role of joyless cops that shut down this party like so many others. But while Michigan had been here before — once, last year — they’d never taken the next step in the NCAA Tournament.
If you’ve ever watched the Wolverines, Naz Hillmon, or her family, the last way you’d describe the program is “joyless.” They’re literally dancing.
Hillmon had 17 points, six offensive rebounds, three assists, and a block. She also helped foul out USD center Hannah Sjerven, their two-way lynchpin and the only Coyote to score in double figures. Hillmon’s mother and grandmother kept it loose in the Michigan section — during breaks in play, while recharging from audible-on-the-broadcast calls for more rebounds and a better whistle for Naz.
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Neither team could gain a three-possession lead all night. The result came down to a South Dakota heave at the horn. When it sailed well wide of the target, the Wolverines celebrated like a team that had never been here before.
They hadn’t, after all.
The Freshman In Name Only
Laila Phelia wasn’t even there for last year’s Sweet Sixteen run. She was still in high school. Yet throughout a tense game in front of a crowd loudly favoring South Dakota, her expression never changed from one of calm determination.
While Michigan struggled to make jumpers, Phelia — a 31% three-point shooter on the season — sank consecutive attempts from beyond the arc to spark an 8-1 run in the second quarter.
Phelia led all scorers with 12 points at halftime, six more than any of her teammates and half of Michigan’s 24 total. Hillmon could only get six shots off against a Coyotes defense that focused on denying entry passes to the post. Leigha Brown’s shots weren’t quite finding the mark. The freshman kept them in it.
Hillmon got more involved in the second half, again taking six field goal attempts but adding five from the free throw line. Amy Dilk performed well on both ends in critical second-half minutes. Brown didn’t leave the court in the half. Phelia spent much of the half on the bench and receded into the background on the court.
With the game knotted at 48 apiece with 48.5 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Michigan had a sideline inbounds out of a timeout. The initial play appeared intended to get the ball to Hillmon in the post if a Dilk cut wasn’t open. Brown held the ball waiting for something to open up; South Dakota shut down the action.
Phelia tried a basket cut herself, came back to the perimeter, and took a short pass from Brown, who set a quick pick. Michigan’s most important set of the season had gone from a drawn-up play for their All-American senior to an impromptu high screen for their youngest player on the floor.
Phelia turned the corner and banked in a running right-hander while absorbing contact down low. South Dakota called timeout. Phelia walked back to the huddle like it was any other.
It’s impossible to replace a Naz Hillmon. Having a Laila Phelia will help maintain the program’s success anyway.
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