LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A year ago, the seventh-seeded Michigan women’s basketball team faced off against second-seeded Baylor in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. A victory for the Wolverines was a longshot, in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2012-2013 season. By halftime, a win for the Wolverines was seemingly improbable. By the dying minutes, it was pipe dream as Michigan lost, 80-58.
Even for a team that had exceeded expectations and broken a four-year drought from the NCAA Tournament, the loss was tough for many of the Wolverines. It was especially frustrating for then-freshman forward Hailey Brown, who at the time was nursing a season-ending ankle injury.
Watching her teammates battle against the Bears from the bench, Brown was forced to watch her team slowly succumb. An important contributor all year, she sat helplessly to the side, knowing she could have potentially made a difference.
“I definitely feel like if I was playing I could’ve added more to the team and helped the team out,” Brown said in November.
A year later, and Brown’s excitement for her postseason debut is readily apparent. Michigan head coach Kim Barnes Arico said that the usually-reserved Brown has become far more vocal in the past few weeks.
“We were on the bus driving to the arena last week, and all I hear was Hailey Brown’s voice in the back of the bus,” Barnes Arico said. “I thought, ‘I haven’t heard her speak this much all season long,’ but I think it was her excitement for the opportunity to play in the Big Ten Tournament and the NCAA Tournament.”
Brown now finds herself in Louisville, where she will finally take the court with her teammates in the first tournament game of her career. Brown, who has improved drastically as a 3-point shooter down the stretch, adds an extra dimension to Michigan’s offense with her ability to space the floor.
“Having Hailey in the lineup definitely changes the dynamic of our team,” senior guard Nicole Munger said. “Having her back is going to be great and open up the court with her three-point shooting for us.”
Brown’s size and shooting ability should prove to be key against a Kansas State team that Michigan possesses a significant height advantage over. Not only will Brown be able to space the floor and help get looks from past the perimeter, she will also be a key option for the Wolverines in the low-post.
“She is an integral part of our rotation,” Barnes Arico said. “She’s a starter for us, shoots the three exceptionally well. We’re happy that she’s healthy and ready to go.”
Despite top-seeded Louisville likely waiting in the wings if the Wolverines can hold Kansas State off on Friday afternoon, Brown isn’t allowing herself to look toward the next challenge. For her, the only obstacle that matters is beating the Wildcats.
“You can’t overthink an opponent,” Brown said. “We’re just focused on this round, and then we’ll focus on the next one after that.”
Even the day before arguably one of the biggest games of her collegiate career, Brown is relaxed, having a certain calmness to her that makes Friday’s matchup feel like just another game on the early season slate. Even in games, teammates say that her ability to stay calm can help them regroup during tough stretches.
“She just has a calmness to her,” said senior forward Hallie Thome, “which I think makes everyone around her feel even though the game is close, we’re always good.”
Before Brown stepped foot on campus back in the fall of 2017, the Michigan basketball program was a name that was rarely listed when considering the Big Ten conference powers. Brown came to Michigan wanting to be a part of that culture change. Now, two tournament berths later, it appears she’s done exactly that.
“We wanted to build something special,” Brown said. “We’re getting the right girls, and they’re buying into what we need as a team to be successful.”
With Brown finally playing a full year, the team once again finds itself in the tournament. This time, Brown will be on the floor to fight alongside her teammates and could be the key to a run that takes the Wolverines to the next level.