Catching the ball off the inbounds pass, junior wing Leigha Brown dribbled twice around her defender and stopped short of the lane for a mid-range jumper. Upon drilling the shot, Brown was knocked off-kilter, sending her to the free-throw line for a three-point play.
That same sequence happened again and again throughout the third quarter. In a mid-range clinic, Brown came alive in the third to send the No. 6 Michigan women’s basketball team to a tournament-opening victory over No. 11 Florida Gulf Coast, 87-66.
Prior to halftime, Brown played just nine minutes after being benched early in the second quarter, sitting alongside junior forward Naz Hillmon due to foul trouble. As the Wolverines’ lead slipped away throughout the quarter, Brown could only sit and watch.
Out of the break, she flipped the script.
Determined to not let fouls dominate her style of play, Brown propelled Michigan’s offense forward during the third quarter. She ended the game with 28 points, 19 of which came over the course of those 10 crucial minutes.
“Obviously being in foul trouble the first half, I wanted to come out in the second and be aggressive,” Brown said. “I think when I’m doing that, it opens up things for the rest of the team. The last few games, I’ve been struggling coming back from COVID-19. My shooting percentage has been kind of low. Everyone’s in my ear, on the whole staff, ‘Your pull up, that’s your bread and butter.’ ”
Focusing on containing Hillmon in the paint seemed to be the Eagles’ game plan. With the Wolverines’ leading scorer struggling to produce, Brown stepped up, and the increased defense on Hillmon gave her the room she needed to work with. Running her off screens, Michigan’s game plan became simple — give Brown the ball.
On the defensive end, Brown’s lanky frame locked down the 3-point line, the main facet of the Florida Gulf Coast’s offense. The Eagles’ players combined for just 16 points in the third, three less than the 19 tallied by Brown.
Brown had cooled off a bit through the last portion of the season, a 35 day pause seemingly taking her out of her game and dropping her 19.7 points per game to 14. With her struggles, Michigan struggled too.
Against Florida Gulf Coast though, with a week of straight practice under her belt, the old Brown came to play. Her 28 points were a career-high and also put her over 1,000 career points.
“It’s taken her a minute — and she would never admit to this because she didn’t think she lost any of it — but she just needed to get her hand on the ball, and she just needed to be in the gym,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “And this past week we’ve had an opportunity to be in the gym a lot and she’s had an opportunity to have her hand on the ball. And I think it showed tonight. She’s just a tremendous, tremendous scorer.”
With a quick turnaround and a tough upcoming opponent in No. 3 seed Tennessee, Michigan will need Brown’s offense to click like it did tonight. It will need its leading scorer, Hillmon, too.
It will need its one-two punch.