For the first time in program history, the third-seeded Michigan women’s basketball team will host a tournament game. It will face off against No. 14 seeded American at 3:30 on Saturday.
This will be the Wolverines’ fifth trip to the tournament under Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico, and they have qualified for all the tournaments held in the last five years. On the other side, this marks the Eagles’ first tournament appearance since 2018.
Both teams had different endings to the season. After starting the season 20-2, the Wolverines struggled down the stretch, losing four of their six last games. American has been red hot to finish the year, winning 12 of its last 14 games. During this stretch the Eagles have held their opponents to 53.1 points per game — tied eighth best in the nation.
“(American) hold opponents to low scoring,” Barnes Arico said. “They play from the inside out, throw a lot of numbers in the paint. (American) really tries to protect the paint to keep the scoring low.”
The other potential challenge Michigan will have to deal with is guard Jade Edwards, an all-around player. Edwards leads the team in points, minutes, rebounds, steals and blocks.
The Wolverines will look to counteract Edwards with their senior experience. This group has qualified for the tournament every year since they were freshman.
Senior forward Naz Hillmon, who was just named a first team AP All-American, has been the team’s heartbeat all year. After advancing to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in program history last season, Hillmon is seeking higher goals.
“We came to Michigan on a mission,” Hillmon said.
Right beside her is senior guard Leigha Brown, who led the team in scoring last season during the NCAA Tournament. Brown missed a large chunk of the end of the regular season with an injury, until returning for the final two games in which she came off of the bench. Her confidence is slowly coming back and she is expected to start.
“Being able to have that experience last year and having some of the success that we did, it definitely gives us confidence coming into this tournament,” Brown said.
But the team knows that it cannot look ahead and take the American lightly.
“I think all the teams that are still playing as of today are really great programs,” Barnes Arico said. “Anything can happen. You saw a 15 seed beating a two seed on the men’s side. It can certainly happen on the women’s side.”
Along with the senior class, Michigan will look to freshmen guard Laila Phelia.
When Brown went down with an injury, it provided an opportunity for Phelia to get in the starting rotation. As a result, Phelia was named to the Big Ten all-freshman team. She has shown flashes of brilliance. Against No. 21 Iowa, Phelia scored a career high 24 points enroute to a 98-90 win. She has also maintained consistency on offense, scoring double digits in three of the last four games.
“I think a lot of people have seen the success that she’s had,” Brown said. “Just her having that confidence in herself and just the belief that we all have in her, and the coaching staff has in her. I think she’s played really well so far and I’m excited to see how she plays in this tournament for sure.”
The Wolverines will look to get their first tournament win on home court. Achieving this will give Michigan one final home game for its seniors where the team will face either No. 6 BYU or No. 11 Villanova on Monday.
“You get to play the last two games in front of your crowd and have so many of our supporters who’ve been with us,” Hillmon said. “It’s a special moment, just to be in Crisler for one more time and just being around those fans.”