Naz Hillmon's climb to the top
Fifteen seconds remained in the fourth quarter of the gold-medal match in the Under-19 Women’s World Cup. The United States and Naz Hillmon were staring down the barrel of a defeat to Australia as, back to the basket, Hillmon posted up against an Australian defender on the top of the key. She watched as two of her teammates crossed in front of her, waiting for the inbound and a chance to tie the game at 66.
Two years earlier, Hillmon had tried out for the United States under-17 national team. She fought and battled through trials, making it to the final round of cuts.
She didn’t make the team, instead designated an alternate.
“I had never seen her so devastated in her life,” said Hillmon’s mother, NaSheema Anderson. “So we went back to the drawing board — what could you have done differently, what could you work on? They gave her things she could work on, and she spent the next year getting stronger, getting shots up, adding some components and dimensions to her game.”
The next year, Hillmon went back to Colorado and made the under-18 team, won a gold medal in the Americas Championship and went on to be the Big Ten’s Sixth Player of the Year and first team All-Big Ten as a freshman at Michigan.
Three months before she would face off against Australia, Hillmon was bugging her mom. One by one, her friends across the country received letters inviting them to come to Colorado and try out for the under-19 team, to play in the World Cup in Thailand, and she didn’t receive one.
Her mom had kept it from her, to make sure she wasn’t just doing this to please her family. Finally, Hillmon was brought into the loop. She made her way to Colorado.
After five days of trials, the team was ready to be announced. Hillmon called her mom beforehand, debriefing her on her chances and when the results would be announced — while her mom teased out the excitement, Hillmon wasn’t going to make her wait.
The time ticked by, Hillmon’s deadline went by, USA basketball’s deadline went by. Anderson was sent out texts to other parents, refreshed Twitter, did the math as reports trickled in of players who had been cut.
She didn’t want to watch her daughter be dealt a blow like the one two years prior.
As they listed the players who made the team alphabetically, five bigs were called before her, nearly filling her position group and increasing the chances she was an alternate.
Finally, she called her mom.
The coaches reached H. Her name was called. Hillmon would be one of just three players to play for both the under-18 and under-19 teams.
Taking the inbound, guard Paige Bueckers launched the ball from center court, arcing over the head of the posted-up Hillmon, into the hands of a streaking Hailey Van Lith.
Three weeks before the championship, in July, right as the Wolverines began their summer camps, Hillmon went to Tokyo.
As she set off for Japan, she was filled with the advice of Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico, who had coached the same tournament ten years earlier.
“She knew how important it is to represent USA across your chest and how much it was about basketball,” Hillmon said. “She wanted me to enjoy it and take in the experience.”
Twelve of the best 18 year-olds from around the country — some high school, some college — landed for their pre-tournament scrimmage against Japan.
For most, it was their first time playing together. The chemistry wasn’t established.
Hillmon, who played for the same coaches the year before, stepped up.
“Because I was one of the older girls, I needed to take responsibility over what was going on, on and off the court,” Hillmon said. “(I knew) the coaches … (I knew) what they liked and how to help the people just coming in.”
But it was a process. Chemistry doesn’t come easy.
The bus tour through the heart of Tokyo, the team’s visit to the Grand Palace in Bangkok, the wisecracks and laughs throughout the tournament — it all built a family.
“You could just see the more time they spent together the more comfortable they are and the more they trusted each other,” Anderson said. “They wanted to play for one another and they wanted to win for their country.”
The scrimmage in Japan and the practices before the tournament in Thailand were a crash course in each other — what shots each player liked to take, what moves they made — what their strengths and weaknesses were.
Van Lith caught the ball a step ahead of her Australian defender. Using the space she had gained in a run to the top of the arc before a cut back to the hoop, she took one dribble toward the hoop — with Hillmon moving in to grab a potential rebound — faked her shot to get a clear look and sent up the potential game-saving shot.
In the first game of the tournament, eight days before the championship, Hillmon started against Australia. She stole the show as one of just four players on the team to score 10 points while also tallying a team-leading nine rebounds and five steals.
The pattern would continue.
Starting the whole tournament, she tallied three games with 10 or more rebounds over the course of the tournament, consistently having one of the best plus-minus margins on the team.
Hillmon’s tireless work on the court was mirrored by her leadership off it, using her voice to empower and better her teammates, while she improved herself.
“I learned a lot about myself, in terms of how I could compete against some of the best in the country,” Hillmon said. “I figured out when people stop this that or another move, you have to have three or four more counters. And also learning how to put my teammates in better positions, working out with girls that you’ve never played with before and having a month, you have to hone in and make sure you put them in the best positions.”
Her growth over the course of the tournament snowballed, culminating in her being named captain the night before the final game — she was no longer just an alternate.
She neglected to tell her mom.
Minutes before Van Lith’s catch, Hillmon was racing down the court toward her own basket.
The seconds were counting down. Three points behind Australia, the gold medal was slipping out of the USA’s grasp. The only option left for the United States was to foul and hope the Opals missed their shots.
“I had no idea how (coach Jeff Walz) was going to pull that off,” Anderson said. “I turned to (guard Rhyne Howard’s) mom and I’m like, ‘We did not come to Thailand to get a silver medal.’
“‘What is he going to pull out? What is he possibly going to do?’”
It was going to be a long fifteen seconds.
Howard went for the first foul, reaching around Australia’s Isobel Anstey. Trying to waste time by avoiding the foul as long as possible, Antsey twisted her upper body back in Howard’s direction.
Her elbow went straight into Howard’s nose.
The flagrant, accidental foul gave two free throws and the ball to the United States. After making one of two free throws, the ball was inbounded by mid-court.
Hillmon posted herself near the elbow, with two of her teammates crossing in front of her. Van Lith made her move, and the ball was lofted over everyone to her. She jump-stepped, faked her shot and ducked. Her shaken defender tumbled over her, before she banked in the game-tying shot.
With 12 seconds left, Australia was unable to hit the game-winning shot, sending the match to overtime.
A team that the United States beat by 23 in the first game of the tournament was fifteen seconds and free throws away from winning the gold medal against the United States. They couldn’t close it out.
In overtime, Hillmon gathered four rebounds and scored two points. The United States won the gold medal, 74-70.
When the medals were awarded, they called for the captain. Anderson watched, feet away, as her daughter — whose dismay two years ago had worried her so much she kept the invitation to the trials from Hillmon to make sure she really wanted to go through the process again — walked forward and lifted the trophy.