Hailey Brown holds the ball and stares down Ali Andrews, waiting a second before making her move. When she puts the ball on the floor to start her drive, it’s precarious — a few probing steps before the dribble is picked up and Brown gets to work with her back to the basket. She unleashes a spin, stepping through a double-team with nary a pocket of air between her and either defender, then a shot, which goes in anyway.
The freshman forward finished the game — a domineering 86-42 win over Illinois (0-7 Big Ten, 9-12 overall) for the No. 19 Michigan women’s basketball team (6-2, 17-4) — with 17 points and 14 rebounds, her second double-double in three games. She does so on 6-of-9 shooting, her sixth-straight game at 50 percent or better from the field.
“Pretty good, huh?” jokes coach Kim Barnes Arico when informed of the numbers.
As the Wolverines have ascended in the last 10 days, notching program-defining wins at Nebraska and No. 8 Ohio State, so has Brown. A staple in the starting lineup since the first game of the season, her three best games of the year have all come during the recent stretch. After her 23-point performance against Indiana last Wednesday, Brown was named USBWA National Freshman of the Week, and she hasn’t slowed down since.
“I think a lot of it is confidence, and I think a lot of it is adjusting to the size and speed at this level,” Barnes Arico said. “So it’s a transition period.
“I think the other part about it is she’s gotten in the gym more. She’s spending a lot of extra time with coach (Melanie Moore), and they’re getting up shots, and they’re spending some extra time just getting her confidence up. And that has definitely paid dividends.”
For most of the year, Brown’s production has gone largely unnoticed in a starting lineup that includes three players who average double-digit scoring and senior forward Jillian Dunston, a leader who does everything else. During non-conference play, she averaged 7.7 points and 5.4 rebounds on 41.9-percent shooting, leaving something to be desired. Against tougher opponents in the Big Ten, Brown has found that something, and more.
“I think as a freshman it’s hard, cause it’s a struggle, especially coming into college,” said senior guard Katelynn Flaherty. “And I know she struggled a little bit in the beginning, just trying to move onto the next play is something you have to learn. And I think once she realized that you’re not gonna be perfect, you can’t make every shot, it’s a long game, and I think once she embraced that she started playing really well.”
Not only is Brown shooting 56 percent from the field in conference play, she’s doing so from a deeper range, even hitting 5-of-7 triples. This was on display Saturday, as Brown set a screen for Flaherty, then slipped it, setting up an open 3-pointer. The freshman nailed it as easily as the senior might have.
“When you can have more people stepping up and making shots, it forces the defense to stretch out a bit,” said junior guard Nicole Munger. “And then once they stretch out, it gets (Flaherty) open looks coming off screens. Ones that she may not have seen, looks that she might not have (gotten) because they can help off Hailey. But now, she’s done an amazing job knocking down shots and playing smart.”