After nearly opting out, Hailey Brown 'shines' during Michigan's NCAA run

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

After the Michigan women’s basketball team’s quick exit from the Big Ten Tournament, coach Kim Barnes Arico evaluated the loss to Northwestern and what the Wolverines needed to make a run in the NCAA Tournament.

The key piece that could make all this click, she realized, was senior Hailey Brown.

Michigan forward Hailey Brown has averaged 12 points in two NCAA Tournament games.

While Naz Hillmon, the Big Ten Player of the Year, and Leigha Brown have been the headline grabbers the first two NCAA Tournament games — Hillmon has had double-doubles in both and Leigha Brown has a combined 51 points — to help lead Michigan into its first Sweet 16, Hailey Brown has been a difference maker.

The 6-foot-1 forward from Hamilton, Ontario, had 10 points and five rebounds against Florida Gulf Coast in the first game, and on Tuesday in the upset of Tennessee, she had 14 points, including 4-of-6 on 3-point attempts. She also has been tireless as a defender.

“Hailey is all calmness, straight face probably the entire game,” Hillmon said. “One thing about her, she shines in the brightest and biggest moments.”

Michigan, a No. 6 seed, is now preparing to face No. 2 seed Baylor on Saturday (3 p.m., ABC) in a Sweet 16 game in San Antonio.

“We knew we needed to get her involved, and we needed to get her involved early,” Barnes Arico said Thursday of Brown. “I thought for our success, she needed to get more involved offensively and she needed to get more touches.”

Brown is averaging 8.1 points, 3.9 rebounds and has 19 blocks, including one in each of the last five games.

“I’ve been shooting the ball really well, something I was struggling with early on in the season, so definitely being able to knock down those open shots and open up the floor for Leigha and Naz in the paint is something that, it really helps when I can knock down those shots,” Brown said Thursday. “Also, being able to defend their post players and committing to that, definitely my role on this team.”

Because of COVID-19 concerns, Brown wrestled with whether to opt out and return home to Canada to be with her parents, or to play basketball.

“Everyone this year has had personal struggles, it’s just been a tough year dealing with COVID and all the stresses that came along with that and being away from my family and not being able to travel and all the travel restrictions, those were really big factors,” Brown said of what she was weighing in her decision making.

Brown called Barnes Arico last August, and they kept open the line of communication regarding the decision she needed to make.

“We continued those conversations, and she said, ‘Coach, something just keeps drawing me back. I feel like we could really do something special with this team this year, and I committed to that four years ago,’” Barnes Arico said.

She decided to return to Ann Arbor, and because of her COVID-19 concerns chose to live on her own, as did Hillmon and Akienreh Johnson.

“This team and the culture that’s here,” Brown said when asked what drew her back to Michigan. “This year has been super tough for everyone, but this team is special, and the thing that drove me back is the team that we have and the things I believed in, (Barnes Arico) believed in, my teammates believed in that we could do.”

River Walk Region

No. 6 Michigan VS. No. 2 Baylor

Tip-off: 3 p.m. Saturday, Alamodome, San Antonio, Texas

TV/radio: ABC/WTKA-1050AM

Records: Michigan 16-5, Baylor 27-2

Outlook: Baylor is coming off a 90-48 rout of Virginia Tech to reach the Sweet 16. …The Bears are making their 12th-consecutive and 15th overall trip to the Sweet 16. … Baylor won its first two NCAA Tournament games by 91 points. … Michigan’s coaching staff includes a familiar face to the Bears, Toyelle Wilson, a Baylor assistant from 2013-19. Wilson was on the Baylor staff in 2018 when the Bears defeated the Wolverines, 80-58, in a second-round NCAA Tournament game.

Twitter: @chengelis