Ascending Michigan women face Tennessee, set sights on Sweet 16

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

In a season of many firsts, Michigan basketball coach Kim Barnes Arico sees no reason why her team can’t add another.

The No. 6-seeded Wolverines (15-5) will face No. 3 seed Tennessee (17-7) Tuesday in a second-round game in the women’s NCAA Tournament at the Alamodome in San Antonio. It is the first time the two programs have met, but that’s not the first Barnes Arico was talking about.

Barnes Arico, in her ninth season at Michigan, hopes to take the program someplace it has never been — the Sweet 16. She and her team have spent a lot of time in the NCAA Tournament bubble the past several days discussing the program, who had come before and started to lay the foundation, and now the vision they all have of taking Michigan to another level.

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“There were a lot of firsts this season, whether that was the 10-0 start, or whether that was Naz (Hillmon’s) 50 points, or the highest ranking in program history, built in with all that were the number of (COVID-19-related) pauses and the amount of time missed and the little bumps of the road we went through as a program, as well,” said Barnes Arico, whose team's No. 6 seed is also the highest for Michigan.

“Just proud of our maturity and our experience through those times but really feel like we have an opportunity to go to places where we’ve never been as a team and that would include being successful (Tuesday). That would be the next step in that direction for sure.”

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Michigan won its first-round game against Florida Gulf Coast on Sunday, and Tennessee advanced after beating Middle Tennessee State. Tennessee is one of the pillars of women’s basketball, having dominated the game for so long under the late legendary coach Pat Summitt. The Lady Vols won eight national titles, the last coming in 2008.

This Tennessee team boasts tremendous height and length — only two players are under 6-feet and the Lady Vols have two at 6-foot-5. This gives Tennessee an advantage on the boards, and in the win over MTSU, Tennessee had a 56-21 rebounding advantage. The Lady Vols rank fifth nationally in rebounding margin at plus-13.4 and sixth in rebounds per game averaging 45.8. Michigan is eighth in at plus-12 and averages nearly 43 a game.

This is a distinctly different opponent than Michigan’s first-round opponent Florida Gulf Coast, which led the country in 3-point attempts.

“That’s one of the strengths of (Tennessee), their size, but also their speed and their ability to go in transition with that size and their length on the defensive end, and that’s why they can be so disruptive with that length,” Barnes Arico said in a Zoom call with reporters on Monday. “With the one-day prep, it will be interesting to see how we handle their pressure with their length because it’s rebounding but it’s also disruptive defensively, too, their ability to force turnovers and their ability to get out and run is incredible.”

Michigan is without starting point guard Amy Dilk, who did not make the trip because of an undisclosed medical issue, and Danielle Rauche got the start. In the first-round game, Leigha Brown gave the Wolverines a huge boost with 28 points, including 19 in the third quarter that broke open the game. Big Ten Player of the Year Naz Hillmon, who had foul trouble early, had 14 points and 13 rebounds.  

With Tennessee having to pay attention to Brown, who missed 35 days this season because of COVID-related issues, including the two-week department-wide pause shortly after she returned, Hillmon may have some freedom.

“When other teams watch us, and Tennessee watches us, that’s going to give them another key person that they really have to focus on and that will hopefully open things up a little bit for Naz,” Barnes Arico said. “The more that we can be successful, each one of our players a little bit more individually, it’s going to open up and help the team be more successful. If we can do that and Leigha play the way she did, it gives Naz an opportunity to be in a one-on-one situation, and I can’t remember the last time Naz has been in a one-on-one situation.”

Twitter: @chengelis

Women's NCAA Tournament

6-Michigan vs. 3-Tennessee

Tip-off: 5 p.m.,. Alamodome, San Antonio, Texas


Records: Michigan (15-5), Tennessee (17-7)