Michigan women crush American in NCAA Tournament opener

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Michigan chalked up a sluggish start to early-game excitement and adrenaline playing on a big stage at home, but as soon as the Wolverines shrugged that off, they did little wrong.

Michigan played swarming defense and senior All-American Naz Hillmon recorded her 15th double-double of the season as the Wolverines walloped No. 14-seed American 74-39 at Crisler Center on Saturday afternoon in an NCAA Tournament first-round game. These were the fewest points scored by a Michigan opponent this season, and the Wolverines remain unbeaten at home.

Michigan forward Naz Hillmon (0) attempts a layup as American forward Taylor Brown (14) defends during the first half.

Hillmon led the team with 24 points, 11 rebounds and she also had a team-high three steals in 26 minutes. Emily Kiser scored 13 and had seven rebounds, and Leigha Brown had 11 points, six assists. Brown, a difference-maker who missed six games late in the season after suffering a lower leg injury on July 31, is now fully healthy, coach Kim Barnes Arico said but played only 12 minutes.

"We were just really hyped," Kiser said of the Wolverines' tough opening minutes. "It was almost the opposite of nervous, just having the crowd, being able to play on our home court, March Madness, just all of it I think caused us to come out a little rushed. We settled in. We knew not to panic with it and stay the course."

This marked the first time the No. 3-seed Wolverines (23-6) have hosted the early rounds in the NCAA Tournament, and they will face No. 11-seed Villanova (24-8) in a second-round game Monday at Crisler — tipoff has not yet been announced. Villanova defeated No. 6 BYU, 61-57, in the early game Saturday.

The winner advances to the Sweet 16. Michigan made program history last season reaching the Sweet 16 before losing to Baylor in overtime. This is Michigan’s fourth-straight NCAA Tournament appearance, fifth overall, under  Barnes Arico, in her 10th season as head coach.

As one of the top 12 seeds, the Wolverines earned the right to host, which is pivotal in the women’s game since it does not play the early rounds on neutral courts. It certainly was huge for Michigan to open the NCAA Tournament before a home crowd of 6,471 and on a court where the Wolverines are now 15-0 this season.

"In that first five minutes when we were rushed and flustered, our home crowd was still there cheering us on, and that makes a big difference compared to when you’re on the road and you’re making a bunch of mistakes," Hillmon said. "Just to have them backing you and being super energized, they were super loud today, you could feel the energy in the air. It was electric."

Michigan entered the game against American, the Patriot League champion, outscoring opponents by an average of nearly 20 points. Michigan had averaged 49.8% shooting at Crisler entering this game and was 48.5% from the field against American after making 2-of-10 in the opening minutes.

The defense has held teams to an average 36.9% shooting at Crisler and American, which was 17-of-57, shot 29.8% -- the lowest by a Michigan opponent this season. Ten opponents now have been held to fewer than 60 points at Crisler.

Michigan, after looking rushed and out of sync in the early minutes of the game, settled in and dominated in the second quarter, 28-5, holding American to two field goals while building a 39-13 halftime lead. Hillmon led the team with 17 first-half points on 8-of-9 shooting.

"We talked a lot about having a good start, because I've been in these situations before, and you can't get down super early," American coach Megan Gebbia said. "I was proud how we played the first quarter to be honest. In the second quarter, it just felt like it was little things here and there. We couldn't get a stop. It snowballs from there."

It had been a long layoff for the Wolverines, who last played 15 days ago in a Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal loss to Nebraska. Hillmon said the team, which also had not played at Crisler since Feb. 24, used the last two weeks of practice to work on themselves. They hit the reset button after finishing the season losing four of their last six. 

"Just being able to focus on ourselves and what we need to be better at, that was super helpful for us," Hillmon said. "Having to always gameplan for other people and not yourselves makes a difference for sure."

Michigan stepped up its defensive performance, and out-rebounded American, 41-35. The Wolverines had 30 defensive rebounds.

"The physicality took us, not by surprise, I think we expected it, but I don't think we expected it to be that physical, like how hard they crashed the offensive boards," Eagles forward Lauren Stack said. "We talked about before the game how Michigan had said they're the hardest-working team in America, and they somewhat proved that on the offensive boards. They were relentless."

Gebbia praised Hillmon and thought the Eagles did a nice job on her the first quarter, but once she kicked into gear, they couldn't stop her. Hillmon sat the fourth quarter.

"She's an amazing player," Gebbia said. "I just enjoy watching how hard she goes at you every time. She just attacks you. That's what you expect when you get to this level. I look forward to watching her throughout the tournament and see how she does and see how Michigan does, because I think they can make a real run here."

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Twitter: @chengelis