Kim Barnes Arico, Naz Hillmon, and Leigha Brown led Michigan to the Sweet Sixteen for the second year in a row — and the second time in program history.
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Michigan women’s basketball has made two Sweet Sixteens in two years.
Michigan women’s basketball has made two Sweet Sixteens in the program’s 49-year history.
Kim Barnes Arico continues to coach the team to greater heights. She owns half of the program’s ten NCAA Tournament appearances, nine of their thirteen 20-win seasons, and seven of their nine tournament victories. She has 95 more wins than any previous Michigan coach and counting.
This year’s first: hosting the opening two games of the tourney, carrying the expectation of advancing to the second weekend, and doing so in front of a raucous Crisler crowd.
While 11-seed Villanova provided a stiff challenge, three-seed Michigan played the role of the giant instead of the giant-slayer, putting their foot down in the second half for a 64-49 final score. The Wolverines emptied the bench for the closing minutes, lighting the proverbial victory cigar.
The seniors hugged Barnes Arico as they exited the floor. This was another program first: two senior days, both ending in triumph. A tight second-round NCAA Tournament game became a coronation.
For the second year in a row, definitely, and arguably the fifth or sixth, we can say that we’re watching the best season in program history.
While that trajectory will eventually prove impossible to maintain, there’s only one way to approach the here and now: keep going.
What else is there to say about Naz Hillmon? The no-doubt greatest player in program history saved one of her best performances for her final game at Crisler. (That’s the first time I’ve typed that out and it truly, physically hurt.)
Despite facing off against Villanova two-way star Maddy Siegrist, a matchup that required Hillmon to expend serious energy following her around the court on defense, Michigan’s All-American scored 27 points on 18 shooting possessions. She also pulled down seven offensive rebounds among her 11 total, and came up with five steals while playing all but one minute.
Time and again, Hillmon proved her physical superiority, whether hounding Villanova’s guard into turnovers at the top of Michigan’s 1-2-2 press…
…or powering through double-teams like the second defender didn’t exist…
…or fighting through traffic to pull down offensive rebounds:
I’ve just unwittingly pulled three plays from a ten-minute stretch of game time. Hillmon was rampant in a game where Michigan needed her scoring more than usual; she accounted for 42% of the team’s points.
My favorite play of Hillmon’s didn’t even result in a Wolverines basket. I have no earthly idea how she grabbed this rebound:
While Michigan didn’t convert the second chance, they burned critical extra seconds off the clock while Nova was in desperation mode.
The Wildcats had no answer for Hillmon. When she’s playing at this level, few teams do.
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Speaking of unstoppable, good gracious, Leigha Brown. Michigan’s #2 option came through with 20 points, shooting 7-for-12 on twos and 6-for-7 at the line with five rebounds, three assists, one turnover, a block, and two steals.
Any concerns that Brown hasn’t recovered from the ankle injury that sabotaged the end of the regular season should be dispelled. She got where she wanted off the dribble and finished, often with an extra dab of sauce:
Brown and Hillmon were so dominant that Michigan didn’t even need to pretend they had other scoring options. Late in the first half, Barnes Arico dialed up the funniest, meanest set of the season. Danielle Rauch, Amy Dilk, and Maddie Nolan packed together on the near side of the court while Brown and Hillmon ran a high screen to the open side of the court.
The play appeared to be designed for Brown to hit a pull-up midrange jumper — Nova could give plenty of help at the hoop. Brown obliged.
Michigan is at their best when the offense runs through Brown. In two tourney games, they score a scorching 1.20 points per possession with Brown on the floor and 0.94 when she’s on the bench, according to Pivot Analysis. She’s also a critical defender; Michigan goes from allowing 0.78 PPP to 0.60(!!!) when Brown is playing over the last two games.
Yes, Michigan is doubling up their tourney opposition, 80-40 in 67 possessions, when Brown has been on the floor.
The Wolverines finally have Brown at something that looks like full strength again. This run may be far from over.
Impenetrable. Michigan’s defense through two tournament games: 88 points allowed on 134 possessions, or 0.66(!!!) points per possession. They’ve come up with 19 steals in the tourney so far while only giving up 18 assisted baskets. While the supporting cast hasn’t scored as much as Michigan would want, they’re playing tremendous defense — Emily Kiser, Laila Phelia, Maddie Nolan, and Danielle Rauch in particular.
South Dakota. Michigan caught a break when ten-seed South Dakota knocked off two-seed Baylor. While the Wolverines have beaten BU already this season, this is the easier path. Still, this projects to be a tight game; Her Hoop Stats favors Michigan by 3.3 points with a 62% win probability.
Like Villanova, the Coyotes play at a slow pace. They’re a more efficient team on both ends of the floor, though, and provide a three-point shooting danger that Nova lacked (their hot initial shooting yesterday cooled for good reason). SoDak is also more balanced than Nova, boasting three players who average 13-16 points per game and three more who score 5-7.
Most disconcerting for Michigan, South Dakota has the fifth-lowest turnover rate in the country (14.2%) and forces the 22nd-highest turnover rate on defense (23.6%). Turnovers, always and forever, will be looked to first if the Wolverines lose. Hopefully a healthy Brown pilots a smooth offense.
The Coyotes are a statistically strong defensive rebounding team that eschews attacking the offensive boards. Their Summit League schedule leaves open the question of how legitimate they really are on the glass; even in the Baylor upset, they had a 12-6 deficit in offensive rebounding. They certainly haven’t faced a Naz Hillmon.
USD has legitimate size and skill up front. 6’2 senior center Hannah Sjerven is a solid interior scorer with the range to hit the occasional three. She’s also a good rebounder and disruptive rim protector, though she can get into foul trouble, and there’s a significant defensive dropoff from her to backup Natalie Mazurek.
Guards Chloe Lamb and Liv Korngable are the other two top scorers. Both are true three-level scorers and sharp passers. They’ll be tough covers for Rauch, Phelia, Nolan, Dilk, and Brown, though they’ve been very up to every defensive task thrown at them thus far.
The key to swinging the game is forcing Sjerven to the bench, or at least to play conservatively on defense. By the time she fouled out against Baylor, the game was functionally over. She’d played 34 minutes — nine more than her average — with four blocks and a steal. Incidentally, Baylor went 12-for-28 on two-pointers.
Expect Hillmon and Kiser to go to work early and see if they can pin a couple fouls on Sjerven. If they can’t, this should be a close one.