Sweet sorrow: Michigan women rally to force OT, fall to Baylor in NCAA regional semifinal
Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico, her eyes red, her voice choking back emotion, said that while it felt like everyone around the country seemed to doubt her team, the Wolverines never questioned their abilities, even on the biggest stage.
In one of the most competitive games of the women’s NCAA Tournament, the Wolverines showed grit and determination in the program’s first appearance in the Sweet 16, pushing defending national champion and No. 2-seed Baylor to overtime before falling, 78-75, on Saturday at the Alamodome in San Antonio. The Lady Bears won the 2019 national title, the last time the tournament was held.
“If the rest of the country didn’t see that we’re one of the best basketball teams out there, I don’t know what you have to do to get that kind of respect,” Barnes Arico said.
The Wolverines (16-6), a No. 6 seed, twice trailed by double-digits but in the fourth quarter kept whittling away at Baylor, which won its first two NCAA Tournament games by an average 45.5 points.
Naz Hillmon, the Big Ten’s Player of the Year, tied the game, 63-63, on a layup with 15 seconds left in the game on a great pass from Hailey Brown. Baylor missed its last field-goal attempt, forcing overtime. The Wolverines, cold from the 3-point line in the first half, going 3-of-13 with two coming to close out the half, were 3-of-4 in the fourth.
Michigan took the lead three times in overtime, the last on Hillmon’s two free throws to make it 70-68 with 3:11 left. Leigha Brown’s layup with 15 seconds left pulled Michigan within, 76-75, but Baylor extended the lead to three on Moon Ursin’s layup. Akienreh Johnson’s deep 3-point attempt with 1 second left missed to preserve the Lady Bears’ win.
“They’re devastated, they’re distraught,” Barnes Arico said of her players. “They knew the moment was theirs. We thought we were gonna be able to get it and really felt confident we were going to be able to get it.”
Leigha Brown, the team’s leading scorer throughout the tournament, finished with 23 points, including 19 in the second half, and seven rebounds. She scored 73 points in three games.
Hillmon had 16 points, seven rebounds, and Johnson scored 14. Baylor’s NaLyssa Smith led all scorers with 24 points — she was 11-of-11 from the field — Ursin had 20 and DiJonai Carrington 19. The Lady Bears entered the game averaging 82.6 points and leading the country in rebound margin at 19.7. They outrebounded Michigan, also a strong rebounding team, 37-32.
“Our defense was ridiculous,” Barnes Arico said.
Baylor coach Kim Mulkey will turn her attention to playing No. 1-seed Connecticut in the Elite 8, but said game, the first overtime for both teams, against Michigan was good for the sport.
"Was it a good game for ABC? You bet it was," Mulkey said. "Was it a good game for women’s basketball? You bet it was. We made just enough plays to win it."
Mulkey heaped praise on the Wolverines.
"It’s heartbreaking to play so tough," she said. "I thought they were tough, I thought they were physical."
The Wolverines entered the tournament having played an abbreviated schedule because of COVID-19-related issues, including a two-week, athletic department-wide pause in late January, and without starting point guard Amy Dilk, who did not travel with the team because of a “medical issue,” according to the program. Barnes Arico said the team often felt “disrespected” this season.
Entering the NCAA Tournament as a No. 6 seed coming off a quarter-final loss to Northwestern in the Big Ten Tournament, the Wolverines spent a lot of time as a group discussing toughness. Real toughness, Barnes Arico said, versus false toughness.
Along the way, they developed a chip.
“Everybody doubted us (against) Florida Gulf Coast (in the first game). Nobody thought we were gonna win that game, then certainly not playing the SEC and Tennessee, certainly not winning that game, and then Baylor, the national champs, not winning that game,” Barnes Arico said. "But everyone in our circle believed they were going to win the games.”
The team has spoken often about this being a season of firsts, among them, a 10-0 start, the program’s highest ranking of No. 11, Hillmon’s 50 points against Ohio State, the Wolverines’ best seed in the NCAA Tournament, and then the first Sweet 16 appearance.
Barnes Arico, in her ninth season, said she came to Michigan to build a women’s basketball tradition, and she’ll have Hillmon back next year as a senior to keep working toward that goal. Hillmon said this tournament run should tell everyone plenty about what Michigan’s program is all about.
“It tells people we are a tough team and we come to compete, and we’ve believed that all year long,” Hillmon said. “There’s been a lot of outside voices, and we talked about how they can sometimes get inside, but we never allowed that to do that to us.
“For other people, whether they believe it now or now, we’re a tough program, and we’re gonna play our hearts out every single night, and we’re working toward championships. That’s why I came to Michigan. I wanted to go somewhere where I could help build a program and help win some championships. This has been a special team having a lot of firsts but now it’s time to make seconds. We’re a program that’s coming to compete and is not going to be an easy program to step over.”