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'Let's have a good time': Michigan women return to NCAA Sweet 16

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Michigan senior All-American Naz Hillmon, who has helped take the program to new heights, took her final bow at Crisler Center — the House that Nazzi built, her coach said — with a dominant performance to help send the Wolverines to their second straight Sweet Sixteen.

Hillmon scored a game-high 27 points as the Wolverines defeated Villanova 64-49 in a second-round NCAA Tournament game Monday night before a rowdy home crowd. 

No. 3-seed Michigan (24-6) advances to the Wichita Regional where it will play South Dakota Saturday at Intrust Bank Arena in Wichita, Kansas. Last year's Sweet 16 appearance was the first for the program.

Michigan guard Danielle Rauch (23) makes a layup as Villanova guard Anahi-Lee Cauley (5) defends during the first half Monday in Ann Arbor.

Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico, in her 10th season with the Wolverines, said when she arrived in the post-game locker room, she needed to give the players a push to enjoy the moment. She thought back to a text she recently received from former Michigan men's basketball coach John Beilien, who encouraged her to embrace the wins and not always focus on losses.

"When I first got in there, everybody was stting in their seat, super composed like just another game," Barnes Arico said of the locker-room scene. "We had to be reminded, and I said that to them, this doesn't happen all the time. There's been so many times we've had devastating losses this year by a point or by two points, and that's really hurt us.

"The locker room would be crying and people would take a couple days to get over. This is a moment that we really need to celebrate, so I said we need to get going here, we need to celebrate this moment and then the locker room got a little crazy.

"One thing you learn being in this business for a long time, you alway harp on the losses. They always kill you. You lose a ton of sleep as a coach, and when we lose it eats it at us. Coach Beilein not long ago said in a text, 'You know what? I wish I celebrated the wins a little bit more so make sure you do that.'

BOX SCORE: Michigan 64, Villanova 49

"Today was unbelievable and I just needed to remind our kids it's OK to celebrate this, let's have a good time. And then everyone relaxed and we started to celebrate."

Michigan, which hosted first- and second-round games in the NCAA Tournament, were 16-0 at Crisler, undefeated at home for the first time.

"The atmosphere was absolutely incredible," Barnes Arico said referencing the crowd of 5,581.

Hillmon had her second double-double of the tournament (50th of her career) adding 11 rebounds, and she also had five steals. Leigha Brown added 20 points and three assists for the Wolverines, and Emily Kiser had 10 rebounds.

While part of a strong, program-building senior class, Hillmon has been the standout, a "transformational" and "generational" talent Barnes Arico said. She was asked if Hillmon's No. 00 jersey should be retired.

Michigan head coach Kim Barnes Arico yells to guard Danielle Rauch during the second half of a college basketball game in the second round of the NCAA tournament against Villanova, Monday, March 21, 2022, in Ann Arbor, Mich.

"She (her jersey) belongs in the rafters of Crisler," Barnes Arico said. "We always talk about the House that Cazzie (Russell) Built, but we sometimes talk about the house that Nazzie Built on the women's side."

Hillmon was humble listening to the praise

"I say it more times than not that I don't look as good without my teammates," Hillmon said. "How many threats we have around me, there's no way I could be the player I am without them. That's one thing that's important to keep in mind, that it's not just about me, especially in this moment."

The Wolverines had a strong defensive effort against Villanova’s Maddy Siegrist, the Big East Player of the Year who entered the game averaging 25.8 points a game, second-best nationally. Siegrist, mostly guarded by Hillmon, was held to 12 points.

“The game was unbelievable, everything you would think, everything we thought heading in," Barnes Arico said. "Villanova is a great program. Very difficult to defend and our team just locked ‘em down. They have an All-American in Maddy Siegrist and Naz did not only play on the offensive end, but she defended that kid for the entire game."

Villanova forward Brianna Herlihy (14) attempts a layup as Michigan guard Laila Phelia defends during the second half of a college basketball game in the second round of the NCAA tournament, Monday, March 21, 2022, in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Barnes Arico said longtime Villanova assistant Joe Mullaney stopped her after the game to heap praise on Hillmon.

"(He) told me he’s never seen anyone play with that type of motor on both ends of the floor," Barnes Arico said. "He said she’s even better in person than he could have imagined."

"We watched a lot of film since our last game just know (Siegrist) is a three level scorer, tried to find ways to push her to my help," Hillmon said of her defense. "I tried to take away one part of it to send her to my teammates."

A 6-0 run by Michigan in the final 1:33 of the third quarter expanded the Wolverines’ lead to 48-40 and sending the crowd into a frenzy. Michigan’s final scoring drive of the quarter was a snapshot of how feisty Michigan played on defense. Hillmon smothered Siegrist for the steal, and Brown finished the play on a jumper for the eight-point lead.

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In the opening minutes of the fourth quarter, Hillmon and Brown made back-to-back field goals to build a 12-point lead. Villanova cut the lead to 52-44 with just less than eight minutes left, but that was the closest the Wildcats would get.

Michigan took a 32-29 lead at halftime thanks to a 11-4 run to close out the second quarter. Brown started things off with a layup with 4:32 left to cut the Wildcats’ lead to two and scored a jumper with 42 seconds left to bookend the run. Maddie Nolan in that run scored the Wolverines first 3-pointer of the game after the team had gone 0-for-3

Hillmon had 16 first-half points, five rebounds and three steals. Brown added 10 points and three assists.

Michigan will get back to practice Tuesday to prepare for the Sweet 16.

"I don't want it to end," Barnes Arico said. "I know we'll be back at it tomorrow and excited for what's ahead of us. There's been a ton of upsets, everyone is a great team. We know we have our hands full every day, but we're excited about the opportunity to keep playing."

Twitter: @chengelis