Leigha Brown, Naz Hillmon provide 1-2 scoring punch in UM's Sweet 16 run
At the end of Michigan’s upset of Tennessee to advance to the women’s NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 for the first time in program history, Leigha Brown found coach Kim Barnes Arico on the court, hugged her and then the emotions spilled.
Brown, who missed 35 days this season while out for COVID-19-related reasons, including the two-week athletic department-wide pause in late January just as she was about to make her return, has been responsible for 50 points through the Wolverines’ first two tournament games. Brown and the team’s leading scorer, Naz Hillmon, have combined to be a consistent scoring threat that has helped the team advance in the tournament.
Michigan, a No. 6 seed, will face No. 2 seed Baylor on Saturday (3 p.m., ABC) for a shot at the Elite 8. The Wolverines, who had been 0-5 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, upset Tennessee, 70-55, on Tuesday. Hillmon, the Big Ten’s Player of the Year, has scored 35 points and has 25 rebounds through two games, while Brown has led the team in scoring and has 50 points in two games.
It was Brown’s 28 points in her 27 minutes that sparked the Wolverines in the opener against Florida Gulf Coast, a reminder that this is the type of player she was at the beginning of the season and has always been capable of since transferring from Nebraska.
“(She) said, ‘Coach, this is why I came here. I believed that we could do this, and I believed in you, and I wanted to play with Naz. I wanted to play with a great post player and I really thought we could do something special,” Barnes Arico said of their moment after the game. “She’s been absolutely tremendous, and I hope the country had a chance to see her these last couple games because she did start the season this way. Leigha being out 35 straight days in the middle of the season, that has kind of taken a little bit of a toll, but she’s back and she’s better than ever.”
Brown has also proven to be prophetic. After the win over Florida Gulf Coast, she said the team is playing its best basketball of the season.
“I think we’re gonna surprise some people in this tournament,” Brown said.
Surprise they have, and now the Wolverines are one of the final 16 teams.
Maybe Brown really can’t predict the future, but she tried to shape hers by making the move to Michigan to play for Barnes Arico and with Hillmon, named this week one of four finalists for the Wade Trophy awarded the best player in the game.
“She and Naz are a fabulous one-two punch,” Barnes Arico said. “I would put them up against anyone in the country.”
Having both clicking at this stage of the postseason is vital for a team making a tournament run.
“They’re great two-way players in the first place,” teammate Hailey Brown said. “Amazing scoring threats in the paint, pull-ups. They put pressure on teams’ defenses. They open up the court for so many others because they draw so much attention, but they can also defend as well, and I think that’s really critical in what they bring to our team.”
Hillmon had increasingly faced double teams late in the regular season, but with Brown’s reemergence, defenses have to adjust.
“Having Leigha on our team, she brings a spark, she brings energy and she brings offense as you can tell,” Hillmon said. “We’re at our best when we have multiple scorers, and that’s one thing she does very well. It opens things up for everyone. She can penetrate and pass, score, and as a defender she brings a lot to our team.”
While Hillmon and Brown have been Michigan’s one-two punch, nothing would work efficiently if not for Danielle Rauch, who was called on to fill a major role during the tournament when starting point guard Amy Dilk stayed home because of a medical issue.
Rauch averaged 3.3 minutes of playing time in the six games before taking over as a starter in the NCAA Tournament.
“Best teammate you could ask for,” Barnes Arico said. “She is so selfless. She is the hardest worker I’ve ever been around.”
Hillmon said Rauche brings an energy level unmatched on the team.
“She does anything and everything she can to make our team succeed,” Hillmon said.
River Walk Region
NO. 6 MICHIGAN VS. NO. 2 BAYLOR
Tip-off: 3 Saturday, Alamodome, San Antonio
Records: Michigan 16-5; Baylor 27-2