Michigan women's basketball in NCAA tournament looking to build on record-setting season

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Daniel Dash
·4 min read
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For the Michigan women’s basketball team, this has been a season of firsts.

After a 10-0 start, the Wolverines reached an all-time high No. 11 national ranking in January. Junior forward Naz Hillmon became the first Wolverine — man or woman — to score 50 points in a game, at Ohio State on Jan. 21. Two months later, she became the program’s first Big Ten Player of the Year after averaging 25.1 points and 11.3 rebounds across 18 regular season games. She was also named an AP second team All-American, making her the program’s first player to earn the honor.

And on Monday, the Wolverines (14-5) earned their highest NCAA tournament seed in team history. U-M will take the court in San Antonio as the River Walk region’s No. 6 seed Sunday vs. Florida Gulf Coast (3 p.m., ESPN2), as ninth-year coach Kim Barnes Arico became the Wolverines’ first coach to secure four NCAA tournament berths.

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What makes these records and accolades even more eye-opening is the fact that they came during a 2020-21 season ravaged by multiple COVID-19-related pauses. The Wolverines hardly found their rhythm, as they were forced into 10 postponements over a 10-week span.

“With the kind of year we’ve had with the pauses and pivoting and changing direction and not (being) sure where things were going to head, I think we’re all just thrilled that we’re going to have the opportunity to still compete and we are still having the NCAA tournament,” Barnes Arico said Monday. “So, exciting time to be a Michigan Wolverine, for sure.”

That hasn’t always been the case. Over the five seasons leading up to Barnes Arico’s 2012 arrival, the Wolverines posted a 38-48 Big Ten record and finished in the top half of the conference standings only once. Now, since winning the WNIT tournament in 2017, Michigan has become an NCAA tournament mainstay and hasn’t lost a first-round game under Barnes Arico.

Much of that success is rooted in talent development. Nebraska transfer Leigha Brown (16.7 points per game) transformed from a bench weapon into a second team All-Big Ten honoree this season.

Hillmon enjoyed arguably the best individual season in program history. That’s no coincidence.

“She can affect the game in so many ways, but she’s also the greatest kid in the world,” Barnes Arico said. “You always hear and you always read the cliché of ‘When you have your hardest worker and your best player as the same person, that could really lead your team to places it’s never been before.’ Well, our hardest worker is our best player, and every day, she’s trying to win a championship, and that’s the mentality she comes in with every day. She holds herself accountable to that level of excellence.”

Michigan’s Naz Hillmon (0) keeps the ball away from Notre Dame’s Amirah Abdur-Rahim (3) on Dec. 3, 2020 at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend, Indiana.
Michigan’s Naz Hillmon (0) keeps the ball away from Notre Dame’s Amirah Abdur-Rahim (3) on Dec. 3, 2020 at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend, Indiana.

But even with a star like Hillmon, Michigan isn’t entering March Madness at its peak. The Wolverines lost three of their past five contests before losing their first Big Ten tournament game to Northwestern — a team they beat twice in the regular season. Over that span, U-M failed to eclipse 67 points five times, marking a stark contrast to the team that began the season with six 80-point efforts in its first seven games.

In the 16-point conference tournament loss to the Wildcats, the Wolverines scored 49 points and shot 1-for-15 from beyond the arc. Barnes Arico was disappointed to see her team bow out early, but it gave Michigan a chance to hit the reset button leading up to the NCAA tournament.

“We got back to who we are and how we got to the position we were in all season long,” Barnes Arico said. “We got off to a great start, the highest ranking in program history and all those wonderful things that we got because of our core values of our team and because of the belief that we would be the hardest-working team in America, so just getting back to who we were in and what we stand for and what our program stands for. I think we had three really good practices. The attention has been there.”

Monday’s Selection Show gave the Wolverines a chance to take a moment to reflect. A year ago, their season ended abruptly due to the pandemic. Now, they’ve overcome a tough circumstance en route to a record-setting year.

“What I’ve been saying to our players all week is, ‘Remember that this foundation was laid by the players that came before you. They built this and they laid the groundwork for this,’ ” Barnes Arico said. “Now we’re reaping a little bit of those benefits, but it’s our responsibility as a program to continue to grow it and continue to push it forward.”

In the NCAA’s San Antonio bubble, the Wolverines have the chance to do exactly that.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan women's basketball hopes to build on big year in March Madness