Surprise Sweet 16 run has UM women's basketball team aiming even higher

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Indianapolis — Looking back, Michigan women’s basketball coach Kim Barnes Arico admits there were times when last season could’ve gone in a completely different direction.

The Wolverines had a 21-day gap between games in December due to COVID-19-related concerns within the program. In late January and early February, they went another 20 days between contests because of a two-week, athletic department-wide shutdown. During all of that, Leigha Brown, one of the top guards in the Big Ten, was sidelined for more than a month after testing positive for coronavirus.

Barnes Arico’s team overcame all those obstacles, forged ahead, and reached the Sweet 16 for the first time in program history during an NCAA Tournament run that not many expected. Now looking ahead, the Wolverines have their sights set on carrying that postseason momentum into the 2021-22 campaign.

Michigan forward Naz Hillmon (00) called last season's trip to the Sweet 16 a "building block" for the program.

“It's a building block for us,” senior forward Naz Hillmon said last week during Big Ten Media Days at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. “We have to move forward, remember how we got there, and I think that starts now. Not in March, in April. Getting that taste of it and knowing what it feels like to be there, we want to take it to the next level to get further.”

During the tournament run, the sixth-seeded Wolverines reeled off a pair of wins by double figures over No. 11 Florida Gulf Coast and No. 3 Tennessee to reach the second weekend. Then in the Sweet 16, they showed they can compete with the best of the best by taking No. 2 Baylor, the defending national champs, to overtime.

“It gives you a sense of confidence,” said Brown, who averaged 18.1 points and 3.1 assists per game last season. “Arguably we could've won that game. I think that we had that confidence already inside of us, but able to prove that to everyone else was special.”

Michigan returns a solid core highlighted by Brown, a second-team All-Big Ten selection, and Hillmon, an All-American and reigning Big Ten player of the year. Also back is starting guard Amy Dilk and key reserves Maddie Nolan, Emily Kiser and Danielle Rauch.

Hillmon said Kiser, a senior forward, will help fill in some of the gaps with the departures of Hailey Brown and Akienreh Johnson. Brown said she’s expecting Nolan, a junior guard, to play a bigger role and added freshman guard Laila Phelia will be one to watch this year.

“(Nolan) doesn't get a lot of credit from the media or outside world, but she's a really integral part of our team. She embodies that grit, that toughness that we want to play with,” Brown said. “Laila is really tough, really special. Offensively she can score better than anyone in that class, so it's going to be really exciting to see what see can do.”

The same can be said of Hillmon, considering the monster numbers she put up in 2020-21. She averaged 23.9 points and 11.4 rebounds per game. She recorded 15 double-doubles and scored in double figures 21 times over 22 games. She set a school record for most points scored in a game with 50.

How could she possibly take her game to another level? According to Hillmon, the next step is to expand her game and show that he can help space the floor, something she joked she’s been saying for four years.

“She always believes that she is a work in progress,” Barnes Arico said. “She’s worked hard at being that face-up player, that positionless player. She's such a dominant back-to-basket player, but if people are stepping off of her, can she knock down that jumper? If she gets a rebound, can she go in the open court and go in transition? Those are things that she emphasized in the offseason.”

Regardless, Hillmon figures to lead a Michigan team that will look to retain its title as the top rebounding team in the conference and get out in transition more to create scoring opportunities this season.

While it may seem from the outside the Wolverines are dealing with loftier expectations than ever before, it won’t change anything inside the program. The mentality is the same. It’s about the process, not the end result.

"We have our own internal expectations and we try not to let what's going on outside affect us because if we did last year, we wouldn't have had as much confidence in ourselves that we did,” Hillmon said. “We try to build off each other, give each other confidence, pump each other up. We know how we feel about each other, how we feel about our play and we'll let that motivate us and carry us throughout the season.”

Hopefully all the way to a Big Ten title and an Elite Eight or beyond in what could be another season of firsts.

“I feel like the goals and possibilities are endless,” Brown said.

jhawkins@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins