The road to a Michigan women’s basketball championship runs through the SEC.
One of the best conferences in women’s college basketball, the SEC had seven teams qualify for the NCAA tournament this year: Texas A&M, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Kentucky, Arkansas and Alabama.
On Tuesday, March 23, the Wolverines (15-5 overall, 9-4 Big Ten) will face the 3rd-seeded Tennessee Lady Vols (17-7, 9-4 SEC) in what will be their toughest matchup of the year.
After a win over 11th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast on Sunday, Michigan looked like a tournament-ready team. The Wolverines scored more 3-pointers in their victory than they had in any other game this season, shooting 8-for-20 from behind the arc. Junior wing Leigha Brown obliterated the Eagles by dropping 28 points on their heads in her best game of the season.
But the Lady Vols are a different beast than Florida Gulf Coast. Whereas the Eagles primarily score on lay-ups and 3-point shots (they only scored 12 mid-range buckets in their season), Tennessee is a threat from anywhere on the court: The Lady Vols are shooting 44.4% from the field and 31.3% from behind the arc.
Size will be another factor in the game. Tennessee only has two players that are under 6-foot on the roster, while Michigan has four. Junior forward Naz Hillmon is the tallest starting player at 6-foot-2 and will most likely have to deal with Tennessee center Tamari Key, who stands at 6-foot-5.
“(Size is) obviously one of the strengths of their team, but also their speed and their ability to go and transition with that size and their length on the defensive end,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “They can be so disruptive with that length, and it’s kind of the polar opposite of the team we played yesterday.”
Michigan has been a strong rebounding team all season with a plus-12 rebounding margin, but Tennessee is just as good with a plus-13.5 rebound margin. The Wolverines’ — and specifically Hillmon’s — ability to dominate in the post and fight for every ball allows them to control the pace and flow of the game, but against a team equally as skilled in rebounding and aggressively pursuing each ball, they will have their work cut out for them.
“I think one of the strengths of the Tennessee program is the ability to rebound the basketball,” Barnes Arico said. “We’re not too bad either.”
One advantage that Michigan will have going against Tennessee is the number of double-digit scorers on its roster. The Lady Vols only have two: 6-foot-2 wing Rennia Davis (17.5 points per game) and 6-foot-1 wing Rae Burrell (17.0). Michigan has three: Hillmon (24.6 points per game), Brown (17.6) and graduate guard Akienreh Johnson (11.0).
If Brown repeats her Sunday performance and Hillmon and Johnson are up to par, the Wolverines stand a chance of advancing to the Sweet Sixteen.
But they’ll have to go through a team that finished third in the best conference in women’s basketball to do it.
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