As the final buzzer sounded Monday night, a celebration commenced. The No. 3 seed Michigan women’s basketball team would return to the Sweet Sixteen. What could have been a bittersweet final game at Crisler Center for seniors Naz Hillmon, Emily Kiser, Danielle Rauch and Amy Dilk instead became a moment of elation.
Before Monday’s game, Hillmon addressed the impending conclusion to her career at Crisler:
“It creeped in this morning,” Hillmon said on Sunday. “My mom actually did it to me. She was telling me about all these tickets that she needed … she was like ‘this is your last game at Crisler, everybody wants to see you,’ so I thought about that for a little bit.
The Wolverines have been preparing for this day for a while. A month ago — Senior Night in Ann Arbor — the group of four seniors found themselves in a similarly reflective position after beating the Michigan State Spartans.
“Tonight was just fun,” Hillmon said on Feb 24. “It was a celebration of how well we’ve played and how much we’ve grown. And we know we have a lot of games left to play.”
While those games appeared plentiful a month ago, they’re now numbered. If the Wolverines slip up even once, everything comes tumbling down. In a flash, their careers at Michigan will be over.
But this year’s senior class built something special. They’ve played an integral part in reshaping what was once one of Michigan’s least successful athletic programs. The Wolverines’ seniors have made the NCAA Tournament in each of their seasons at Michigan — with the exception of the 2020 Tournament, which was canceled due to COVID-19. Two of those trips, including this year’s campaign, included a run to the Sweet Sixteen.
“(Naz’s) entire class came in together,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “They said, ‘we’re going to create something incredibly special here,’ and they believed it, and they owned it and they’ve done it.”
This season’s return to the Sweet Sixteen is, so far, the culmination of the senior class’s accomplishments. And with the celebrations that followed the Wolverines’ victory over Villanova on Monday, it never felt like the seniors were saying goodbye to their home floor. After the final buzzer, the team rushed to the corner to take pictures. Reporters swarmed Hillmon for her postgame interview on the court. In all the celebration and ruckus that follows a tournament win, any sense of finality seemed forgotten.
Michigan is still playing, and to the team, that’s all that matters.
“This is a moment that we really need to celebrate,” Barnes Arico said. “So I said, ‘we need to get going here, we need to celebrate this moment,’ so then we started to celebrate the moment and the locker room got a little bit crazy.”