With her team having just lost a nail-biter to top-seeded Maryland in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament, Kim Barnes Arico sat behind her microphone and fielded questions from the media.
The Michigan women’s basketball coach applauded the Wolverines’ effort and execution throughout the press conference, but when asked specifically about the development of freshman point guard Amy Dilk, she took her praise to another level.
“I feel like I have the best point guard in the country on my team,” Barnes Arico said.
“Maybe there are some coaches out there that feel like theirs is the best, but I feel like I have the best point guard in the country. And she’s just a freshman.”
Dilk had just dished out a career-high 11 assists against the Terrapins and held her opposite, point guard Taylor Mikesell, to just eight points on 3-of-9 shooting from the field.
Dilk wasn’t the only Michigan freshman who impressed though — forward Naz Hillmon scored 16 points off the bench. While the game was a microcosm of the Wolverines’ season in more ways than one, it most importantly represented how far Dilk and Hillmon have come.
Dilk arrived in Ann Arbor as one of the Big Ten’s most talented freshmen and stepped into a starting role from the start of the season. And yet, she struggled with turnovers, averaging 3.8 through the first month of the season. Hillmon, who was recently named Big Ten Freshman of the Year, has been the first Michigan player off-the-bench since the beginning of the season, but over time has become the team’s most reliable scoring option. It can now be said that being thrust into such significant roles as freshmen has expedited the duo’s growth and given them invaluable experience.
“Our coaches tell us we’re not freshmen anymore,” Hillmon said. “We’ve played enough games and been in enough situations where we can’t make those same mistakes that we made game one. We’ve done things now that many other freshmen don’t get the opportunity to do, so we’re just players. We’re not really rookies anymore.”
Despite experiencing high-level competition throughout their high school and AAU careers, a rigorous regular season coupled with the win-or-go-home nature of the Big Ten Tournament has given Dilk and Hillmon even more of an appreciation for the college game.
“As far as the atmosphere, being on the national stage at that point is just an amazing feeling,” Hillmon said. “Being in that atmosphere with my teammates is something I haven’t experienced before just because of the magnitude of it.
With Michigan projected to safely make the NCAA Tournament — ESPN bracketologist Charlie Creme’s latest prediction has the Wolverines as an eight-seed — that stage will get even larger.
Heading into the tournament, Michigan’s depth and recent hot streak make it a dangerous team to face. The Wolverines have shown they can hang with some of the best programs in the country. Wins against Missouri, Rutgers and Big Ten Tournament champions Iowa in February, paired with their recent toe-to-toe battle against Maryland, show how good this team can be. This is especially true when Dilk and Hillmon are at the top of their game.
The freshmen duo seems up to the challenge. They might have lost earlier than they had hoped, but both Dilk and Hillmon point to the Big Ten Tournament as a necessary learning experience.
“I think I’ve learned that each possession matters a lot,” Dilk said. “Whether that’s on offense or defense, getting a stop in the first quarter could be the determining factor as to whether we’re going down to the last second in the fourth quarter. I’ve just learned not to take a possession off.”
Added Hillmon: “I feel like I’ve learned more about myself and my teammates just in the way that we play and with situational things. Who to put in what positions. I’ve learned that throughout the year but being in double-overtime (against Wisconsin), being in a really close game on the second day of the tournament, I really learned that. I learned a lot about our fight, too.”
Michigan is peaking at the right time — having won nine of its last 11 games. It is no coincidence that the run coincides with more consistent play from Dilk and Hillmon.
They may still be young, but they’re ready to help the Wolverines accomplish something special.
“The biggest thing is just to enjoy it,” Dilk said. “We’ve earned it. We fought hard this season. It’s going to be fun playing against all levels of competition outside the Big Ten. And then, for our seniors, we’re just going to leave it all out there for them.”