Until today, the Michigan women’s basketball program hadn’t beaten a top-five team in the entirety of its existence. That’s over 48 years of basketball without a capstone victory. The program-defining win coming against No. 5 Baylor — the team that knocked them out of last season’s NCAA tournament in devastating fashion — just adds to the sweetness for the Wolverines.
While star-seniors Naz Hillmon and Leigha Brown combined for 40 points in the 74-68 overtime win, this achievement wasn’t just because of their scoring prowess — it has been 10 years in the making.
Yes, it’s been a decade since Kim Barnes Arico has taken over as head coach. She’s been in it for the long haul, and now it’s time to reap the rewards. Michigan has officially entered the top tier of women’s college basketball.
“I hope the rest of the world sees that Michigan is for real,” Barnes Arico said on Sunday after the win. “It’s an unbelievable place to go to school, and an unbelievable program to be a part of.”
Success isn’t a familiarity to the Wolverines. When Barnes Arico came to Michigan, the program had made the NCAA tournament just once in its previous 11 seasons — a trip that ended in a first-round exit.
The culture of losing that had been established wasn’t going to be changed overnight, and in Barnes Arico’s first five seasons as head coach, it seemed to be an irremovable stain. Michigan made the NCAA tournament only one time in those five years.
Since, Barnes Arico has seen consistent improvement throughout her tenure. She’s made the NCAA tournament each of the last three eligible seasons, excluding the 2019-20 tournament, which was cancelled due to COVID-19. Her postseason success culminated last spring with a Sweet 16 appearance.
Sunday, Barnes Arico and the Wolverines had a chance to not only build off the success of last season, but to get revenge against the team that terminated their historic run.
It was déjà vu, as Michigan found itself trapped in a clash so evenly-matched that it needed an extra period to reach a conclusion. But this time, the Wolverines found themselves without Hillmon in overtime.
Ultimately, Hillmon’s absence didn’t matter. Brown stepped up and hit big shots when it mattered most. So did junior guard Maddie Nolan, who scored her first points of the game off a corner three to go up four with 2:43 minutes left in overtime.
Nolan stepping up isn’t a surprise. Barnes Arico has been able to get the most out of her role players all season. Whether it be senior guard Danielle Rauch against Wisconsin, senior forward Emily Kiser against Central Michigan or freshman guard Laila Phelia against Baylor — who tied her career high in Sunday’s matchup — different Wolverines have been coming up big over the course of the season.
“I believe that the difference in our team is those other pieces,” Barnes Arico said at Michigan’s media day in October. “Everyone buying into their role and everyone doing their role as good as they possibly can.”
That’s what separates this Wolverine team from the teams of years past. They have the star power with Hillmon and Brown, but the surrounding pieces know what they have to do, and they have the capacities to do it. The focus is on winning as a team. And it comes as a result of the culture that Barnes Arico has built.
“I think that it’s definitely a special program in that aspect, with the culture,” freshman guard Jordan Hobbs said at Michigan’s media day. “I don’t think you could find a team with a better culture anywhere in the country.”
After just recently joining the program, Hobbs had already determined that the culture at Michigan was special. It’s a testament to the hard work that Barnes Arico has put in over the past decade. If praise from a freshman guard doesn’t convince you that Barnes Arico has built something special in Ann Arbor, perhaps a score will: 74-68.
Sunday’s win over Baylor isn’t a mistake. It’s a monument to the metamorphosis of the program. Barnes Arico has spent the last decade transforming the program into a force to be reckoned with that can compete for the Big Ten championship, and maybe even a national championship. The win against Baylor is simply proof that the finished product is here.