The Michigan women’s basketball team had a hole to fill ever since junior wing Leigha Brown became ineligible for play due to COVID-19 protocols on Jan. 7, right before the Wolverine’s match-up with Nebraska.
Brown was an integral part of Michigan’s early success that led to a 10-0 start. Without her, Michigan has struggled to put points on the board and guard opposing teams’ perimeter threats.
“I think the hardest part is learning to play without (Brown),” fifth-year senior guard Akienreh Johnson said after a win over Illinois on Jan. 10. “(Brown’s) such an offensive presence. She can really get any shots she wanted, whenever she wanted.”
But with Brown out, Michigan might have found their new bright spot in sophomore guard Maddie Nolan.
Nolan’s no stranger to stepping into big roles. Last season she contributed big minutes late in the season after multiple players sustained significant injuries. Her breakout game against Northwestern in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament, with 13 points and eight rebounds, made her a consistent substitute for tired guards early in her sophomore season. She’s a scrappy defender that made teams uncomfortable.
After a brief stint of junior guard Danielle Rauch trying to fill the spot left by Brown, Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico decided it was time to pencil Nolan into the lineup once again.
“Last year when we made our run in the Big Ten Tournament and when Kayla (Robbins) went down with her injury that she stepped in and really did a tremendous job for us,” Barnes Arico said after a win over Wisconsin on Jan. 14. “But I think it was just her getting back her confidence, or knowing that she had the green light.”
Nolan had only started one other time this season against Oakland, when Johnson went down with a leg injury the game before. Nolan added three points and nine rebounds against the Golden Grizzlies.
But in her second opportunity of the season, Nolan proved she’s more than capable of holding a starting spot. Against Wisconsin on Jan. 14, she had 21 points — 15 of which came from beyond the arc. In the Wolverines’ final game before the two-week shutdown, Nolan had six rebounds and five assists.
She brought a 3-point threat back to Michigan’s offense, something it missed without Brown. In the defensive end, Nolan uses her quickness to disorient other guards. Contributing on both sides of the floor, Nolan fills in the gaps.
“Last year gave her an opportunity to really play, and to get experience as a freshman,” Barnes Arico said after that same Wisconsin game. “Now her confidence is at another level. She’s a big strong guard, she defends exceptionally well, she rebounds well and she can shoot the ball and that really gave us an option from the outside.”
While Nolan can’t fully replace Leigha Brown, her performance shows that Michigan has many starting options. Nolan has the potential to grow into Brown’s shoes. And with Johnson and senior forward Hailey Brown graduating this season, the Wolverines will need replacements in the lineup. Nolan’s continued development will be necessary for sustaining the program’s success in the coming seasons.
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