WICHITA, KAN. — The Michigan women’s basketball team knew it was do or die.
With a trip to the Elite Eight on the line — potentially the first in program history — the third seeded Wolverines (25-6 overall) rose to the challenge.
Taking down No. 11-seed South Dakota (29-6), 52-49, in the Sweet Sixteen, the Wolverines once again made history.
“The moment we had today is never going to go away,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “So I’m just so happy for this group. … We’re still playing. There are eight darn teams left in the country playing and we are one of them. That’s pretty incredible.”
From the opening tip, it was a gritty, back and forth game. Throughout the entire game Michigan struggled to score, never truly finding an offensive groove. Instead, short spurts of efficient scoring kept the Wolverines afloat against a physical Coyote defense.
In the first quarter, trying to push the ball in transition, sloppy turnovers plagued Michigan. The Wolverines looked to their one-two punch of senior forward Naz Hillmon and senior guard Leigha Brown, but to no avail.
Hillmon — who was triple-teamed on every possession — notched zero points in the first quarter and just six in the second. Brown faired slightly better, but any limited success she had was unsustainable. Working deep into the rotation early, Michigan tried to get something going. A short run at the end of the first quarter kept the Wolverines from fully breaking.
But opening the second quarter with two missed 3-pointers from junior guard Maddie Nolan and a shot-clock violation, Michigan quickly fell out of what little rhythm it had gained. Short offensive spurts from freshman guard Laila Phelia kept the Wolverines in the game — and a strong defensive showing forced South Dakota into tough shots — but nothing seemed to stick.
It quickly became clear Michigan wouldn’t magically overcome its struggles, but would have to fight for every possession. On this night, nothing would come easy.
With their offense faltering, the Wolverines dug into their defensive identity, trying to keep South Dakota contained on offense. Clogging the paint and hedging high on ball screens, Michigan tried to disrupt the Coyotes offensive game plan.
“We play a different style than a lot of the teams that (South Dakota) played,” Barnes Arico said. “Just going back and watching the film of their first two tournament games, who they beat, two Power Five opponents that are awesome teams, they defended it differently than we did tonight. We wanted to give them a different look. I think it sped them up and made them take quicker shots than maybe they wanted to take.”
Yet, South Dakota still jumped out to an early lead. Failing to put together a complete game, the Wolverines allowed the Coyotes to hang around throughout the half, entering the locker room down by two points.
“They were definitely scrappy, they fought and clawed to the last minute,” Hillmon said. “They were in there running around for every rebound, trying to take charges throughout the game, everything in between.”
Despite obvious halftime adjustments, the third quarter followed the same narrative of offensive struggle. Doubling down on finding Hillmon and senior forward Emily Kiser in the paint, Michigan finally found the shots it wanted — but failed to capitalize. More short spurts of successful offense from Hillmon and Brown kept the Coyotes from deepening the wound, just barely.
The Coyotes continued to force the Wolverines out of rotation and score at every level. Draining 3-pointers and finding their forwards inside, South Dakota kept Michigan from gaining any momentum. Regaining the lead at the tail end of the third quarter, the Wolverines narrowly escaped with a one point lead.
With the game very much within reach for either team throughout the entirety of the fourth quarter, Michigan continued to struggle finding offensive consistency and keep the game within its control.
Coming down to the final play, the Coyotes had a chance to secure the lead with 20 second left on the clock. South Dakota launched an open 3-pointer for the lead — only for the ball to bounce off the rim into Hillmon’s hands, with a foul following. The next possession, another Coyote foul sent Brown to the line for the first time all night. Draining both, Brown put the Wolverines back in control with a four point lead.
Michigan would hold on, emerging victorious.
And for the first time in program history, with just eight teams left vying for a national championship, the Wolverines are still dancing.