'We're not done yet': Michigan women reach first Elite 8, get rematch with Louisville
The Michigan women’s basketball team has been all about being program ground-breakers this season and has now crossed another goal off the list.
But it wasn’t easy.
Michigan, the No. 3 seed, went down to the wire with No. 10 South Dakota, but advanced to the NCAA Tournament Elite 8 with a 52-49 win Saturday night at Intrust Bank Arena in Wichita, Kansas.
This is the first Elite 8 for Michigan, which made the program’s first Sweet 16 appearance last season.
"I'm just so happy for this group for them sticking together," Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. "We're still playing. There are eight darn teams left in the country playing, and we are one of them. That's pretty incredible."
Naz Hillmon had 17 points and 10 rebounds, her third double-double of the tournament and 17th of the season. She now has 51 during her career. Laila Phelia finished with 14 points, and Leigha Brown had 10.
The Wolverines (25-6) will play Louisville (28-4), the No. 1 seed, at 9 p.m. Monday in the Wichita Regional for a chance to dance in the Final Four. Louisville advanced with a 76-64 win over No. 4-seed Tennessee in the early game Saturday.
Michigan and Louisville met in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge on Dec. 2, with the Cardinals winning convincingly, 70-48.
"That game taught us a lot about ourselves," Hillmon said of the loss to the Cardinals. "That was an important game for us. We always talk about how losses are lessons, and that's exactly what that game was. We've become a lot more confident since that game. Having that happen to us so early in the year definitely did help our growth offensively and defensively."
Getting the opportunity to meet Louisville again required plenty of work against South Dakota, led by Hannah Sjerven, who had 17 points and eight rebounds but fouled out with 2:19 left. The Coyotes had advanced to the Sweet 16 with an upset of No. 2 Baylor.
South Dakota's Chole Lamb tied the score, 48-48, with 51 seconds left, but Phelia scored on a driving layup with 22 seconds left to give Michigan a 50-48 lead.
"I knew the clock was running down, and at that point I just knew I needed to attack the basket," said Phelia, a freshman. "I felt like my teammates gave me a lot of confidence right before I did end up going in, and they told me now is not the time to hesitate."
Barnes Arico, sitting at the table with players after the game, then chimed in.
"I was telling you to just score," Arico said to Phelia. "I said, 'Just score, just score.'"
"She was yelling at me to score," Phelia said, laughing.
Lamb missed a 3-pointer with 16 seconds left. Brown closed out the scoring for the Wolverines making two free throws with 11 seconds left. Maddie Krull made one of two free throws for the Coyotes with nine seconds left to pull within three points. South Dakota's Kyah Watson missed on a 3-point attempt to tie the score with no time left.
"Really proud of the way our team played and really proud of the way they finished in the last four minutes of the game," Barnes Arico said. "South Dakota had an incredible season, has an incredible team. They were really impressive, and we had to do everything that we could to come away with a victory tonight but just proud how we finished the game for sure."
There were three lead changes in the tightly contested game.
It was a sluggish start for the Wolverines, who trailed 11-5 until the final 36 seconds when Brown made back-to-back baskets for Michigan to pull within 11-9. Michigan started the game 0-for-4 from the field and was 1-of-9 with three minutes left in the quarter. Hillmon couldn’t quite get going in the opening quarter and was 0-for-3 and had three rebounds and three turnovers.
The Wolverines briefly took the lead in the second quarter, ahead by as many as four points, but South Dakota went into halftime with a 26-24 advantage. Phelia led Michigan with 12 points, nine in the second quarter, including two 3-pointers. After going scoreless in the first quarter, Hillmon came back with six points in the second.
Hillmon, an All-American this season — another first for the Michigan program — said she never forgets that what this team has achieved this season was started long ago when Barnes Arico, now in her 10th season here, took over.
Barnes Arico, who led the Wolverines to the WNIT championship in 2016-17, has taken the program to five NCAA Tournaments, back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances and now an Elite 8.
"I feel like every time we make history I think about all those people before us," Hillmon said. "Some of the teammates we had who really wanted to get to this point, players we don't know who have helped to build and establish what we have, our culture, our system working toward putting Michigan on the map."
Brown said while reaching the Elite 8 means so much, there's still plenty to do.
"We've made history throughout this entire season, but we wanted to continue to keep doing things that have never been done before," Brown said. "We're not done yet. We want to keep making history for sure."