It all started with a deep 3-point bucket.
The tone was set from the get-go, and sixth-seeded Michigan (15-5 overall, 9-4 Big Ten) never looked back, defeating eleventh-seeded Florida Gulf Coast (26-3, 16-0 ASUN), 87-66.
The first bucket of the game was a Florida Gulf Coast 3-pointer. The Eagles are one of the most prolific 3-point shooting teams in the country, having shot 1,030 times from behind the arc over the course of their season. While the Wolverines are not the most aggressive team from behind the arc, they followed Florida Gulf Coast’s lead in their first possession of the game with a deep 3-point field goal from senior forward Hailey Brown.
In the first moments of the game, Michigan went on an 8-0 scoring run, capitalizing on a slow Eagle start. A 12-5 run from Florida Gulf Coast narrowed the gap, and the precise shooting that the ASUN conference champions had all year returned.
With junior forward Naz Hillmon — the reigning Big Ten player of the year — benched in the second quarter after two personal fouls, Michigan struggled to find open looks. Hillmon sat for more than eight minutes in the first half and immediately picked up a third personal foul in the opening possession of the second half.
Hillmon consistently draws multiple defenders. With her benched early in the game, the offense adjusted to create open looks for other players like graduate guard Akienreh Johnson, who scored 15 points in the game.
The absence of junior guard Amy Dilk, one of the main facilitators of the offense and an 18-game starter, also forced the offense to make adjustments. Dilk did not make the trip out to San Antonio for the tournament due to “medical issues,” and junior guard Danielle Rauch started in place of Dilk.
“Our bench came in and was tremendous. Whether that was (sophomore guard) Maddie Nolan, (junior forward) Emily Kiser, I thought Akienreh Johnson was outstanding defensively,” Barnes Arico said. “Hailey Brown was absolutely incredible, and Danielle Rauch was the glue that kept us together.”
The on-the-fly adjustments worked, as Michigan would fight its way ahead of its opponent, leading 38-36 at the half. When Hillmon returned in the second half, the Wolverines started off with an 8-0 run.
Fouls, which had been an issue for the Wolverines in the past, still plagued the team. Aside from Hillmon’s four fouls, junior wing Leigha Brown, one of the team’s biggest scoring threats, only played nine minutes in the first half because of two personal fouls. Michigan finished the game with 14 fouls, nine of which came in the first half.
Brown made up for her quiet first half by erupting in the second, scoring 19 points in the third quarter alone. Brown shot 9-for-10 from the floor in just the third quarter on her way to shooting 12-for-16 overall. She would finish with 28 points.
“One of the greatest things about her is that she is a confident basketball player,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “She also has ice in her veins.”
The balanced scoring effort by the Wolverines proved enough to overcome their foul issues. Six players finished with more than five points, as opposed to Florida Gulf Coast’s offense running through two players: Kierstan Bell who had 25 points and Tishara Morehouse who notched 17 points.
Every time Michigan pulled away, Florida Gulf Coast managed to get hot up until the second half, where Brown’s eruption put the Wolverines in the driver’s seat for the rest of the game. Michigan didn’t get complacent, managed their fouls and spread the offense.
It was a smart strategy, and it paid off.
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