Hillmon's historic performance highlights team's missing link
In the most emotional game of the season and the marquee moment of her career thus far, Naz Hillmon remained determined and expressionless.
The junior forward is the heart and soul of the Michigan women’s basketball team. With the Wolverines trailing by as many as 16 points as late as the third quarter, Hillmon was the loudest player on the court.
As she scored basket after basket, it was clear to everyone this was shaping up to be a memorable performance. But, as the game neared its end, Hillmon was only focused on winning.
Hillmon finished the game with a whopping 50 points and 16 rebounds. She broke the single-game record for most points scored in a game in school history — man or woman. This was arguably the best individual performance by a Michigan basketball player of all time. She shot 20-for-30 from the field and accounted for almost 65% of the team’s points.
Yet, all of this came in a losing effort. Despite her heroics, the Wolverines couldn’t top Ohio State, suffering its first loss of the season, 81-77.
“We come out every night, we say expect to win. We’re not going to just walk in and win but expect to win, earn our win,” Hillmon said. “We’re definitely upset about that. We know we have some things to work on. But, we also tell ourselves we can’t get complacent.”
For the fourth consecutive game, junior wing Leigha Brown’s scoring presence was desperately missed while being sidelined due to COVID-19. Besides Hillmon, only three other Wolverines scored. Open shots were not hard to come by, as players were constantly open on the perimeter due to Ohio State double and triple-teaming Hillmon. Junior guard Amy Dilk and sophomore guard Maddie Nolan commanded the floor well, firing off quick passes around the three-point line.
But their efforts were largely futile. They shot a dismal 2-for-20 from three-point range. Thirty field goal attempts were made, 23 of which were layups.
It was clear from the game’s onset that hitting open shots would come at a premium for the Wolverines. Dilk aided Hillmon by hitting two 3-pointers in the first half, but senior forward Hailey Brown was the only other player to make a field goal in the first half.
Hillmon simply did not get enough help from her supporting cast, accounting for two-thirds of Michigan’s 30 made field goals.
“When you’re not making any outside shots, we just started running everything through (Hillmon),” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said.
The strategy worked with Hillmon scoring and reaching the foul line with ease, but only to an extent.
“My teammates probably talk to each other when I’m not in the huddle,” Hillmon said. “They’re like ‘alright let’s get Naz the ball.’ But I think that’s the unselfishness of our team. People can be in a funk and they’re going to continue to shoot all the shots, even though somebody’s open.”
Hillmon couldn’t get enough help in a game when she needed it the most, triggering Michigan’s ultimate downfall. But her individual performance is something that rendered even one of the most experienced coaches nearly speechless.
“Against Nebraska when she had 35 (points) and 22 (rebounds), most people thought … ‘How is that ever going to happen again?’ ” Barnes Arico said. “When she’s circled on the top of everybody’s scouting report to say double-team or triple-team or do whatever you have to do, and she still managed to do that.
“She was in a kind of ‘refuse to lose’ mentality.”
Hillmon proved, for the umpteenth time, that she can do anything she can to help her team win a game. But, for the first time this season, she was unable to do it all.
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