Leigha Brown helps power Michigan women past Florida Gulf Coast

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Michigan junior Leigha Brown has had some catching up to do, and in the Wolverines’ first-round NCAA Tournament game, she clearly made up for lost time

Brown scored 28 points in Michigan’s 87-66 victory over Florida Gulf Coast on Sunday at the UTSA Convocation Center in San Antonio. The junior missed 35 days and four games earlier this year because of COVID protocols and then, just as she was about to return, had to sit another two weeks because of a department-wide pause.

Michigan celebrates its win over Florida Gulf Coast in the first round of the women's NCAA Tournament on Sunday in San Antonio, Texas.

She and Naz Hillmon, the Big Ten’s Player of the Year, sat much of the first half with two fouls apiece. Brown scored 19 points in the third quarter as Michigan built a 64-56 lead.

“I wanted to come out in the second (half) and be aggressive,” Brown said. “I think when I’m doing that it opens up things for the rest of the team.”

Michigan was shorthanded with the absence of starting point guard Amy Dilk, who did not make the trip to San Antonio because of a “medical issue” the team announced before the game. Coach Kim Barnes Arico did not offer additional details after the game. Hillmon had 14 points and 13 rebounds for the Wolverines, Akienreh Johnson had 15 points and Hailey Brown 10.

Michigan (15-5), a No. 6 seed, plays No. 3 seed Tennessee on Tuesday. The Lady Vols (17-7) advanced to the second round with a win over Middle Tennessee State on Sunday.

For Michigan, this is the fourth consecutive first-round victory and the Wolverines are now looking to reach the Sweet 16 with a win over Tennessee. The Wolverines are ranked 16th in the AP poll and Florida Gulf Coast entered the game ranked No. 24, the only game in the men’s or women’s NCAA Tournament featuring teams ranked in the final AP polls.

Florida Gulf Coast is known for its 3-point shooting, leading the country with 1,001 attempts entering the game, but Michigan’s defense held the Eagles to 9-of-29 shooting on 3-pointers. Kierstan Bell had 25 points for FGC.

Barnes Arico said it has taken time for Brown to return to basketball shape, to what she had been in November and December before the long time off. She had always seen Hillmon and Brown as a one-two punch and against the Eagles,  Brown delivered the biggest punches.

“(Brown) was aggressive and she was confident, and she’s had a lot of extra time in the gym,” Barnes Arico said. “When you’re out for 35 days and most of those 35 days you haven’t even had your and on a basketball or you haven’t been able to condition, you lose a lot of that. It’s taken her a minute. She just needed to get her hand on the ball and she just needed to be in the gym. This past week we’ve had an opportunity to be in the gym a lot and she’s had an opportunity to have her hand on the ball, and I think it showed tonight. She’s just a tremendous scorer.”

The night before the game, the team watched a video of seven-time Super Bowl champion quarterback Tom Brady, who played at Michigan.

“We kinda talked about his big thing in that video was when the pressure is on, or when the game is on the line, who’s going to step up and who’s going to make the plays, and who’s going to be able to execute under pressure,” Barnes Arico said. “We have multiple kids in our program that want that situation and Leigha’s certainly one, and I’m proud she came out with that mindset in the second half.”

Now the Wolverines have a day to prepare for Tennessee, one of the blue bloods of women’s college basketball.

“We can surprise some people,” Brown said. “We’re playing our best basketball right now. Obviously, we went through a little rough patch in the middle of the season with COVID kind of shutting us down for a little bit. I think we’re gonna surprise some people in this tournament.”

achengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @chengelis