Between effective passing and strong leadership, Leigha Brown led Michigan to a hard-fought victory over Northwestern. Julianne Yoon/Daily.  Buy this photo.

Fifth-year wing Leigha Brown has exploded on the No. 17 Michigan women’s basketball team’s latest stretch of road games, averaging 18 points per contest and hitting clutch free throws to secure victories in the final minutes. She carried that success into the first Big Ten test of the season, helping defeat Northwestern on Sunday afternoon.

In a game filled with momentum swings, Brown catalyzed the biggest shifts for the Wolverines. All season, Brown has found teammates open on the wing or in the corner for 3-pointers late in the game — Sunday was no different.

With just over three minutes left in the third quarter, Brown leapt up to secure a rebound on the defensive end, then advanced the ball up the court. She dribbled to the wing and launched a skip pass across the court to sophomore guard Laila Phelia, who caught the pass wide-open and found nothing but net to give Michigan an eight-point lead, its biggest of the game at that point.

“For us to be able to have someone to make those passes and everything that just (is) gonna make the team that much better,” Phelia said. “And just being able to know that Leigha is going to make those passes helps the team a lot.”

Brown catalyzed the Wolverines’ offense with her dynamic passing to stretch the floor and find teammates for open shots, accounting for 11 assists. Her passes frequently resulted in open shot opportunities, which were otherwise hard to come by for Michigan.

The Wildcat defense tested the Wolverines in a way that few teams in the country can. Their “blizzard” defense, composed of a 1-1-3 full-court matchup zone, is made up of intense ball pressure and trapping. It clearly worked, as it forced 19 turnovers.

But despite that pressure — and turning the ball over four times herself on risky passes — Brown was able to refocus her teammates.

“I think Leigha Brown gives a lot of people confidence,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “She will look at them and just be like, ‘We’re okay, we’re fine.’ And she gives that to our team. I think that’s really, really important.”

And while Brown was able to refocus her teammates, calling her a calming presence would be incorrect — her intensity from the opening tip-off and fiery attitude is too apparent for that. In tight games after a made basket or sinking her free throws, she will run back on defense, turn around and start clapping or waving her arms, getting the crowd to roar. And Crisler erupted for the first time all season after two Phelia 3-pointers, both assisted by Brown.

“One thing I definitely saw today was when she (started making her run) after she had her free throws and everything,” Phelia said. “I feel like just her intensity, that really told me like, ‘Oh, yeah, she’s back. She’s ready. She’s ready.’ And so I felt like that was just pretty clutch.” 

The energy Brown brings on the court is palpable, and quickly infuses her teammates with a spark. Her collected performance in close situations brings the Wolverines home.

With just over one minute to play in the fourth quarter, Northwestern guard Caileigh Walsh received a pass at the top of the key. While the pass was in the air, Brown flew across from the wing, sneaking in and swiping the ball away after Walsh took one dribble. She pushed the ball ahead, driving up the floor and taking off for a layup. Intentionally fouled mid-air, Brown finished through contact, extending the Michigan lead to eight before she sank both free throws to put the game away for good.

That all-around sequence embodies Brown’s performance on Sunday.

In a contest where the Wolverines saw leads slip away, Brown ensured that the final one was there to stay. And with her energy, her teammates saw to that as well, securing a Big Ten season-opening win and extending Michigan’s undefeated start.