Michigan women's basketball may have the one-two punch to make even more history at NCAAs

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Daniel Dash
·3 min read
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Sitting at the podium following the Michigan women’s basketball team’s Round of 32 win, Naz Hillmon held back tears.

Hillmon, a junior forward, has put together one of the best seasons in program history this year. She averaged 25.1 points and 11.3 rebounds across 18 regular season games, becoming the Wolverines’ first Big Ten Player of the Year and All-American.

But those were individual accomplishments. When Michigan knocked off No. 3 seed Tennessee on Tuesday to clinch the program’s first Sweet 16 berth, she was all about the team.

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“To be finally recognized as a team is the best accolade that I could ever get,” Hillmon said. “I’m getting choked up because this group is special, and we’ve worked every night and every day, and we talked about these things, and now they’re getting put into fruition. So to finally have that team accolade is something I’ve been looking forward to, and we’ve got it, and we have the opportunity to build off of that.”

Michigan forward Naz Hillmon passes under pressure from Tennessee guard Jordan Walker (4) during the second half of a college basketball game in the second round of the women's NCAA tournament at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Tuesday, March 23, 2021. Michigan won 70-55. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Michigan forward Naz Hillmon passes under pressure from Tennessee guard Jordan Walker (4) during the second half of a college basketball game in the second round of the women's NCAA tournament at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Tuesday, March 23, 2021. Michigan won 70-55. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

The Wolverines won each of their first two games in blowout fashion, dispatching No. 11 seed Florida Gulf Coast, 87-66, in the Round of 64 before upsetting the Lady Vols, 70-55. Hillmon and junior wing Leigha Brown combined for 84 points across the two games, cementing themselves as one of the tournament field’s best one-two punches at the offensive end.

“I think they’re great two-way players in the first place,” senior forward Hailey Brown said Thursday. “Amazing scoring threats in the paint, pull-ups, they put pressure on teams’ defenses, they open up the court for so many others because they draw so much attention, but they can also defend as well, and I think that’s really critical in what they can bring to our team.”

The Wolverines are shooting 45% as a team this season, and three different starters averaged double-digit scoring in the regular season. But so far in the NCAA Tournament, Hillmon and Brown have been the biggest difference-makers.

Wolverines’ coach Kim Barnes Arico said the fact that players such as Hillmon and Brown are even at Michigan is evidence of a paradigm shift in women’s college basketball.

Michigan guard Leigha Brown celebrates after making a basket during the first half of the second round NCAA women's tournament game against Tennessee at the Alamodome in San Antonio on Tuesday, March 23, 2021.
Michigan guard Leigha Brown celebrates after making a basket during the first half of the second round NCAA women's tournament game against Tennessee at the Alamodome in San Antonio on Tuesday, March 23, 2021.

“We’ve had players that have come before Naz, but we have Naz Hillmon, who’s an All-American that decided to come to Michigan, a program that had never gone to the Sweet 16, to do something that has never been done before, to beat Tennessee for the first time, to have an opportunity to play against Baylor in the Sweet 16, and those kids are different,” Barnes Arico said Thursday. “They’re special in their own right, and they wanted to do something that has never been done before.”

Saturday brings a game vs. No. 2 seed Baylor. It’s a familiar matchup for Michigan’s senior class, which fell to the Bears, 80-58, in the Round of 32 in 2018. Saturday’s clash offers the opportunity to avenge the season-ending loss of their freshman year while further etching their senior year into the Wolverines’ history.

“I came to Michigan to do these moments, and from the very first time I stepped on the campus and I had the early conversations with (Barnes Arico), this has always been one of our goals, to take the program to the next level,” Brown said. “… We did it. We made it to the Sweet 16, and we still have more to do.”

Michigan players celebrate while Tennessee guard Jordan Horston walks off the court after U-M's 70-55 win in the second round of the NCAA women's tournament at the Alamodome in San Antonio on Tuesday, March 23, 2021.
Michigan players celebrate while Tennessee guard Jordan Horston walks off the court after U-M's 70-55 win in the second round of the NCAA women's tournament at the Alamodome in San Antonio on Tuesday, March 23, 2021.

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Why Michigan women's basketball isn't surprised by historic success