On Thursday night, the No. 6 Michigan women’s basketball team will honor its seniors.
Not only will this be the group’s final game at Crisler Center, but they have endured a pandemic-riddled season and brought the program into the national spotlight.
Yet for most of the Wolverines’ veterans, the approach is the same as any other game.
“Just have fun with it,” senior forward Naz Hillmon said. “Sometimes if you sit there and think about (senior night) too long, you study wrong.”
Michigan will honor four seniors: guards Amy Dilk and Danielle Rauch, and forwards Naz Hillmon and Emily Kiser. This year’s sendoff will be particularly emotional — these seniors helped establish the Wolverines as a top-tier program. In part as a result of the current seniors and their perseverance, the team achieved its first-ever Sweet 16 appearance last season, and they hope to continue to cement that legacy by building off that run in March.
“They mean a lot to our program and to our team,” junior guard Maddie Nolan said. “We only have a couple more games left with our senior class, so (we’re going to be) putting it all on the floor for them.”
Coming in, the seniors aspired to change the culture. They knew it wouldn’t change overnight. Despite holding a 43-23 record in the seniors’ first two seasons, the team was just 21-15 against Big Ten opponents.
It now holds a 21-8 record in the past two seasons against Big Ten opponents. As a result, the Wolverines can win their first Big Ten regular season title in program history if they win their last two games of the season against Michigan State and Iowa on the road.
“(The senior) class has meant so much to the women’s basketball program at the University of Michigan,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “They wanted to leave a legacy and they are and it’s still not done.”
The senior class has been crucial to this year’s success. Both Kiser and Rauch are having career years. After backing up Hillmon last year, Kiser has flourished in a starting role, and she now leads the team in both blocks and defensive rebounds. She’s also become one of the team’s top scoring options, averaging 9.7 points per game.
When Dilk went down with an injury early in the season, Rauch stepped in. She’s performed admirably, becoming the team’s facilitator on the court and leading the team in both minutes and assists.
In Dilk’s first three years with the program, she started 79 of 82 games, leading the team in assists each year. But an injury in the first game of the season sidelined her for two months. Since returning, Dilk has stepped into the unfamiliar role of sixth man and has gradually seen her minutes climb.
Hillmon has engineered Michigan’s success since her arrival, on campus and this year it has been more of the same. Against Ohio State on January 27th, she surpassed Trish Andrew’s previous record of 928 boards to become the all-time leading rebounder for the program. Despite averaging fewer points than last year, Hillmon is still a force to reckoned with, averaging 20.9 points per game — good for twelfth in the nation.
“I just want our fans, their families, our community and our program to celebrate them because their commitment and work ethic to our program has been second to none,” Barnes Arico said. “They’re Michigan women through and through. They’re great representatives of our university, of our community, of our program and I’m just so proud to be their coach.”
Senior night aside, Michigan knows that it must remain focused in order to get a crucial win against the Spartans on Thursday and keep its hopes of a first Big Ten title alive. Throughout the past four seasons, the Wolverines hold a 3-3 record against the Spartans and are coming off a loss against them just 13 days ago. Michigan State will be hungry for a victory, too — the Spartans find themselves in a must-win situation to be considered for an NCAA tournament bid.
But despite the stakes, the seniors view this as just another game.
“(We’re) really going into it knowing that we don’t take these games for granted but have fun with it,” Hillmon said. “That’s really been our senior motto all year because when you stress yourself out, you tend to not have as strong of a season. We’ve been playing this game for a very long time. Just go have fun with it and everything else will follow.”