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'Another building block': No. 6 seed Michigan women roll past No. 3 Tennessee, advance to first Sweet 16

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

The year of firsts for the Michigan women’s basketball program continues to roll for the Wolverines.

Michigan, a No. 6 seed, upset No. 3-seed Tennessee, 70-55,  in a second-round NCAA Tournament game on Tuesday at the Alamodome, sending the Wolverines to the Sweet 16 for the first time in program history. Kim Barnes Arico, in her ninth season, and her teams had reached the second round four times.

Now there are two Michigan teams in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16, as the men’s team advanced on Monday. The Michigan women will next face No. 2 seed Baylor (26-2), a 90-48 winner over Virginia Tech Tuesday night.

Leigha Brown, who led the team in scoring in the Wolverines’ first tournament game, scored a game-high 23 against the Lady Vols and went 11-of-11 on free throws. She has scored a combined 51 points in the first two tournament games.

Naz Hillmon, the Big Ten’s Player of the Year, recorded her 15th double-double of the year with 19 points and 15 rebounds, and Hailey Brown had 14 points, including 4-of-6 shooting from the 3-point line.

“It’s amazing,” Hillmon said after the game. “We’ve been having a lot of firsts on our team and for this program, and this is another one. Definitely so excited. We drenched coach in the locker room. Lots of energy, lots of excitement. It means a ton.

“We have a fifth-year senior (Akienreh Johnson) and a senior (Hailey Brown) who’s never been to this position and they’ve been here four or five years and to be able to get to this point is not only special for them but for the program. We’ve been talking a lot about building the foundation of our program and of our team and this is another building block for us.”

BOX SCORE: Michigan 70, Tennessee 55

The Wolverines stifled the bigger, longer Lady Vols defensively, and held them to a season-low 19 first-half points. Michigan took a 14-12 lead into the second quarter after a Hailey Brown 3-pointer, and never looked back. The Wolverines, who led by as many as 19 in the third quarter, outrebounded one of the nation’s top rebounding teams, 42-40.

Tennessee’s top scorer Rennia Davis, who was averaging 17.5 points a game, was held to 12 points on 4-of-16 shooting. Rae Burrell, the Lady Vols' other threat who was averaging 17 points, was held to 11. Tennessee was 2-of-14 on 3-pointers.

“We rushed some of our shots in the first half and will definitely credit Michigan’s defense for that,” Tennessee coach Kellie Harper said. “I thought, more importantly, we didn’t finish layups. We missed 17 layups in the games. It’s gonna be really tough to advance against a talented opponent if you can’t finish. I don’t want to take anything from (Michigan), because I thought their physicality affected us on some of those finishes.”

It was Michigan’s physical defense that proved the difference.

“We’ve been talking so much about toughness and really talking about what exactly does that mean, false toughness versus real toughness and being able to defend people and being able to lock down,” Barnes Arico said. “Akienreh Johnson is special. She is a special defender, but the whole team, and Naz is so strong, and Hailey Brown has such a high IQ, she understands where to be, and we just have a certain edge. My boy (Trevor) sent me a text before the game, and he said, ‘Mom, they are not gonna be used to your energy. They are not gonna know what hit them. Just bring that energy that you had the other night (against Florida Gulf Coast).’ I reflected before I left the hotel, and (he was) right. We came out and Florida Gulf Coast is a heck of a team, and most people picked us to lose that game. We came out so laser-sharp and so locked in and so focused and our energy level was off the charts.

“We replicated that. I wasn’t sure we could be that consistent with one day in between, can we have that same energy we had the other night, and we did. They believe in playing defense, they believe in rebounding. They have something to prove. They felt a couple times during this season that they were maybe a little disrespected or people counted them out because of the things that had been thrown our way and they stepped up to all of those challenges in these last couple of games.”

For Michigan, reaching the Sweet 16 is an enormous step for the program under Barnes Arico, who led the team to a No. 11 ranking earlier this season, highest ever in program history. The team, which was sidetracked by two COVID-related pauses, including a two-week athletic department-wide stoppage, started 10-0, Hillmon had a 50-point game, and the No. 6 NCAA Tournament is also a program best.

Hillmon, a junior, has been highly decorated this season, including a spot on the AP All-American second team, also a first for Michigan which has not had a player reach that status. But seeing her team launched into the Sweet 16 has been more meaningful.

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

"I’m getting choked up because this group is special and we work every night and every day and we talk about these things and now they’re getting put into fruition. To finally have that team accolade is something that I’ve been looking forward to, and we’ve got it and we have the opportunity to build off of that. Definitely a special moment for me.”

achengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @chengelis