No. 6 Michigan takes down No. 3 Tennessee, advances to women's Sweet 16 for the first time

In women's college basketball, there are a group of schools who all basically claim a spot in the NCAA women's tournament each and every season.

That number gets even smaller when you consider the handful of programs who are mainstays in the Sweet 16 every single season. The opportunities rarely come for some schools whether it be the first, second or even ninth try. But it's the first time that's always the most special.

For the first time in school history, Michigan women’s basketball is headed to the Sweet 16.

A pivotal 22-5 run in 11-plus minutes of game time lifted U-M to a 70-55 victory over Tennessee in the second round of the NCAA women’s tournament in San Antonio.

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"I didn’t realize until years ago when I was at St. John’s and we got to our first Sweet 16. I did a little research and I saw how difficult that was. Not every coach that coaches this game gets to go to the Sweet 16," Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said after the game.

"I left St. John’s, we had just went to the Sweet 16 and had a group of players returning, two future WNBA draft picks, because I believed in Michigan. I believed that we could create something special there. They had done it in every other sport. Softball is great, football is great, men’s basketball is great, gymnastics and field hockey, you could go on and on, tennis. Every sport there is great — except women’s basketball didn’t have that history and tradition. That pulled me there."

Michigan's Danielle Rauch (23) looks to pass ahead of Tennessee's Destiny Salary (2) during their second-round game.
Michigan's Danielle Rauch (23) looks to pass ahead of Tennessee's Destiny Salary (2) during their second-round game.

Michigan will play the winner of Baylor and Virginia Tech in the River Walk Region semifinal on either March 27-28.

In the ninth tournament appearance for the program, Michigan (16-5) was aided by three players scoring in double figures and making life tough for Tennessee (17-8) on the defensive end.

Big Ten Player of the Year Naz Hillmon collected a double-double, 19 points and 15 rebounds. Leigha Brown scored a game-high 23 points going a perfect 11-for-11 from the free-throw line. Hailey Brown added in 14 points including four 3-pointers.

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In a season where nothing felt normal, and long pauses had seasons put on the brink, it is the payoff of not just the individual honors but the team finally being recognized nationally for taking a tremendous step in the right direction.

“It means a ton to me," Hillmon said. "I think this year I’ve gotten a lot of individual accolades and they’re always great. But seeing the work that my team has put in throughout the year and to be finally be recognized as a team is the best accolade that I can ever get."

"I’m getting choked up because this group is special because we work every night and every day and we talked about these things, and now they’re (coming) to fruition. To finally have that team accolade is something that I’ve been looking forward to, and we’ve got it, and we’re looking to build on that.”

Michigan's Naz Hillmon (00) drives to the basket ahead of Tennessee's Jordan Walker (4) during their second-round game.
Michigan's Naz Hillmon (00) drives to the basket ahead of Tennessee's Jordan Walker (4) during their second-round game.

Michigan’s tough first half defense limited the Tennessee to just 19 points after both teams struggled to get in an offensive groove. Michigan's energy on defense frustrated and confused the Lady Vols at times — playing right into the hands of the Wolverines.

"My boy sent me a text, he said, ‘Mom, they are not going to be used to your energy. They are not going to know what hit them. Just bring that energy you had the other night,’" Barnes Arico said.

"We came out so laser sharp and so locked in and so focused. Our energy level was off the charts. I think we replicated that. I wasn’t sure as a coach — could we be that consistent with one day in between? Could we have that same energy we had the other night? And we did. Absolutely incredible. They believe in playing defense, they believe in rebounding. … They have something to prove. They felt that they were a couple times during this season, they were disrespected or that people counted them out because of all the things that have been thrown our way."

One player who benefitted from this was Michigan guard Danielle Rauch. Having to play in place of the injured Amy Dilk, Rauch was a constant presence in the face of Tennessee's ball-handlers as she collected five steals.

Tennessee's leading scorers, Rennia Davis and Rae Burrell, struggled to score. Davis shot 4 of 17 from the field, scoring 12 points, while Burrell was 4 of 7 and had 11. As a team, Tennessee shot 34% from the field.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: March Madness: Michigan topples Tennessee in women's NCAA tournament