After reaching the Sweet Sixteen last year for the first time in program history, the No. 3 seed Michigan women’s basketball team looked to advance to the Sweet Sixteen for the second-straight season. 

They did.

The Wolverines (24-6 overall) defeated No. 11 seed Villanova (24-9) on Monday, 64-49, in large part due to their defense in the second half. 

“I have known them for years having been in the Big East for 10 years,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico, who previously coached at St. John’s, said. “I know their style of play. Very difficult to defend, and our team just locked them down.”

But it didn’t start that way, as both teams were slow to start the game — shooting a combined 3-of-14 in the first five minutes. 

Michigan had trouble getting it going offensively early in the first quarter. The Wildcats were doing a good job defending the paint early.  As a result, the Wolverines committed three turnovers in the first three minutes of the game. 

Halfway through the first quarter, it was tied four apiece. Then the intensity began to ramp up as Michigan and Villanova found their shooting stroke, and the Wildcats took a 13-9 lead heading into the second quarter.

The Wolverines kept the game close, but Villanova retained a two-possession lead for most of the second quarter thanks to its strong three-point shooting. 

“They were running stuff for (Brianna Herlihy) and (Maddy Siegrist) and if you got stuck on screens and two people came inside, they were popping and were getting a lot of shots,” Barnes Arico said.

But Michigan broke through late in the quarter, holding the Wildcats scoreless for a 3:11 span. This allowed the Wolverines to head into halftime up three. 

The Wolverines’ defense was much-improved in the second half, forcing Villanova into difficult shooting situations.

“I think we had to adjust,” Barnes Arico said. “For the first time in a long time, we went four guards and made an adjustment and did a pretty good job of that.” 

The strong defense allowed for senior forward Naz Hillmon to take over. She scored five of the next seven points for Michigan, finishing the night with 27 points.

“She’s generational, transformational,” Barnes Arico said. 

On the other end, the Wolverines held the Wildcats scoreless for the remaining 3:44 of the quarter. Michigan capitalized on its own offensive opportunities and took a 48-40 lead into the fourth. In the final frame, Hillmon continued her duel with Siegrist.

Siegrist, the second-leading scorer in the nation, averaging 25.8 points per game, was held to just 12 points on 38% shooting in the game. Hillmon, who was the main star on offense, exceled on the defensive side guarding her. 

“Physically, (Hillmon) did a really nice job of knocking Maddy off her mark,” Villanova head coach Denise Dillion said. “She did some nice things at the top of the press as well as being disruptive.”

Added Barnes Arico: “Their assistant coach, a longtime assistant who I’ve known for 20 years, grabbed me and told me he’s never seen anyone play with that type of motor on both ends of the floor. He said (Hillmon’s) even better in person than he could have imagined.” 

Midway through the quarter Michigan set up the perfect tic-tac toe play. Senior forward Emily Kiser passed the ball to freshman guard Laila Phelia to junior guard Maddie Nolan, who hit a 3-pointer to put the Wolverines up 11 with 6:36 left in the game. 

Michigan’s defense would continue to stay strong, holding the Wildcats scoreless for over four minutes. Villanova shot just 7-of-28 from the field in the second half. 

The Wolverines second-half defense carried the way, resulting in them punching their ticket to Wichita, where they will face No. 10 seed South Dakota in the Sweet Sixteen.

“I know a lot of great coaches that have never been to the Sweet Sixteen ever,” Barnes Arico said. “For us to go back to back years is absolutely incredible and just a credit to the players in our program.”