Two-thirds of the ways through the season, the Michigan women’s basketball team looked doomed for mediocrity. But the Wolverines completely turned things around, winning nine of their final 11 games.
Starting with a Feb. 1 victory over No. 10 Iowa, Michigan powered its way through the Big Ten to secure fourth place in the conference standings — its second-best finish in Kim Barnes Arico’s seven-year tenure as coach.
Guided by their star co-captain seniors, guard Nicole Munger and center Hallie Thome, and a pair of standout freshmen in guard Amy Dilk and forward Naz Hillmon the Wolverines are now on the cusp of their second-straight NCAA Tournament berth.
The Daily breaks down the seasons these four players put together.
Possibly no freshman in the country came into the season with larger shoes to fill than Dilk. Slotted into the point guard position from day one, Dilk had to replace Michigan’s all-time leading scorer, Katelynn Flaherty.
While Dilk may not have been the Wolverines’ most consistent player, no game proved her worth more than Michigan’s Nov. 25 affair with Washington. In just her sixth collegiate game, Dilk registered a stat line of 19 points, nine rebounds and seven assists in an 80-73 victory.
Oftentimes throughout the season, Dilk struggled to consistently score. But Barnes Arico overlooked her struggles and realized the importance of having Dilk on the court. When Dilk was out with a knee injury for three games, Barnes Arico noticed a difference in her team and a slight increase in sloppy play.
“Amy was probably averaging about 35 minutes a game and she had the ball in her hands, especially under pressure,” Barnes Arico said after a Feb. 14 win over Indiana in which her team committed 20 turnovers. “A lot of decision making came through her.”
Barnes Arico has consistently praised Dilk’s high basketball IQ and said she would not have preferred anyone else run the point position this season.
Big Ten Sixth Player of the Year, Big Ten media selection for Freshman of the Year, Big Ten All-Freshman Team and First Team All-Big Ten. These are the accolades that Hillmon can claim with the regular season now in the books.
Despite not starting a game, Hillmon led the Wolverines in field goal percentage (.626), points per game (13.2), rebounds per game (6.9) and tied for second on the team in steals (31).
She has dazzled in competition all season. In her first four games, the freshman forward shot an absurd 26-for-31 while scoring more than 20 points in two of those games. Since then, it has been much of the same for Hillmon, whose motor leads the Wolverines’ press defense.
“(Hillmon’s) energy is contagious,” Barnes Arico said after Hillmon’s 22 points and eight rebounds against Detroit-Mercy. “I think she just does a tremendous job of bringing it each and every single day. I think it’s definitely a difference-maker in our program’s success, so it’s great to have her.”
Coming into the season, Thome was expected to be the offensive leader of the team. And while a nagging back injury may have caused the senior center to have lackluster performances at Penn State and Michigan State, she put together a season to remember.
Averaging 12.5 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game, Thome earned First Team All-Big Ten honors — selected by the Big Ten coaches — for the third consecutive season. Along the way, Thome recorded her 2,000th career point and positioned herself in second place on the Michigan all-time leading scorers list.
“2,000 points is a lot of points,” Barnes Arico said on WTKA on Feb. 19. “It means from the minute she stepped on campus, she has made an immediate impact on our program. She’s been such a special player for us. A 6-foot-5 kid that can really do anything.
“I mean she has such great soft hands, able to catch any pass you throw up, finishes well around the rim, ability to offensively rebound the ball and just has a great touch and a great feel for the game.”
Seen as the leader of the Wolverines, Munger saved her best for her final season at Michigan. Earning Third Team All-Big Ten honors for the first time in her career, the senior averaged 9.9 points per game, good for third on the team, and shot the second-highest three-point percentage on the team (.345) despite taking nearly 40 percent of the team’s three-point attempts (168).
But what Munger brought to the table this season went well beyond the stat sheet. Take the Wolverines’ Feb. 14 matchup with Indiana. With 30 seconds on the clock and a five-point lead, Munger took a charge — despite having four fouls — to give the ball back to Michigan and seal the game.
Or how about on Jan. 24, also against the Hoosiers? Munger went flying into the band trying to save a loose ball, walking away with a giant bruise on her leg from diving into a tuba.
Munger provided an endless supply of these high-intensity moments throughout the season, and that’s what Barnes Arico loves the most about her senior co-captain.
“(Munger’s) just a special kid,” Barnes Arico said. “I think she’s been the heart and soul of our team since the minute she walked on campus. … She’s a tremendous basketball player but she’s even a better person.”
With only the NCAA Tournament remaining, Dilk, Hillmon, Thome and Munger hope to lead Michigan past the first weekend for the first time in program history. Luckily for them, they’ll have help from sophomore guard Deja Church, sophomore forward Hailey Brown, junior guard Akienreh Johnson and junior forward Kayla Robbins who have all had clutch performances throughout the season.
But now the burden is on Michigan’s four stars to continue their strong regular seasons into March and deliver.