Leigha Brown is back.
Draining a 3-pointer at the buzzer to end the first half, the senior wing stared down American guard Jade Edwards as they both walked off the floor. The feisty attitude she typically plays with was on full display in the Michigan women’s basketball team’s Round of 64 win over the Eagles.
Brown was sidelined for a large portion of the season after sustaining a lower leg injury against Indiana on Jan. 31. Relegated to the bench, her loss was evident in the latter half of the season, with the Wolverines dropping four of their six final regular-season games.
But against American, the energy Brown brought to the floor was palpable.
“Having Leigha Brown back changes our whole team dynamic,” senior forward Emily Kiser said. “Whether it’s defense, offense — she’s just a game-changer.”
Playing just over 12 minutes, Brown didn’t see the floor as much as she typically would if fully healthy. But in spite of all the time she’s missed, she made those minutes count.
Notching 11 points and six assists, Brown was a play-maker in Saturday’s game. And after a rocky first few minutes, the Wolverines needed someone to be the spark, which Brown provided.
Brown came off the bench midway through the first quarter and immediately made an impact. Dropping off a pass to senior forward Naz Hillmon for an easy basket in the lane, she had the crowd on its feet within just seconds of stepping on the court. Finding her offensive groove all over the floor, she went 2-for-3 from behind the 3-point line — including one that led to her gutsy staredown of Edwards at the end of the first half — and flashed her signature driving jumper in the lane multiple times.
“She brought that spark,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “Instant offense, whether that’s scoring the basketball, or her ability to pass the basketball.”
On the defensive end, Brown created problems for American. Taking charges, using her length to disrupt passing lanes and trapping guards in the frontcourt, Brown was all over the floor. Her defensive intensity is something Michigan relies on to play its physical style of basketball.
“She’s great at scoring the basketball, she’s great at passing the basketball, but the energy and the passion that she plays with is off the charts,” Barnes Arico said. “It just makes a difference. And when she’s not playing, she does it from the sideline. But when she’s on the court, it’s just contagious.”
Brown’s limited playing time was also part of the game plan, and not because she’s incapable of more playing time. Keeping her and the rest of the starting crew off the floor for the majority of the second half was a luxury Michigan was afforded because of its early drubbing of American — largely courtesy of Brown’s impact.
With a much more physical opponent in Villanova looming on Monday, the Wolverines will need Brown to continue at the caliber of play that she flashed against the Eagles. With more minutes and a more physical opponent, Brown’s true strength will be tested.
But as for now, she’s back.