History has been made, again.
The sixth-seeded Michigan women’s basketball team (16-5 overall, 9-4 Big Ten) was unfazed when facing one of the best teams in the country, upsetting third-seeded Tennessee (17-8, 9-4), 70-55, in the Round of 32 to advance to the program’s first ever Sweet Sixteen.
The first minutes of the game were slow for both teams as Michigan opened up with 1-for-6 shooting and Tennessee started 1-for-8 from the field in each team’s first few possessions. Seven lead changes told the story of the first quarter as both teams struggled to complete plays offensively.
The Lady Vols failed to shake their inability to finish shots, missing 17 layups. While they kept pace in rebounding with the Wolverines, their rebounds failed to materialize into offensive production. Tennessee, who average 75 points per game, only scored 19 in the first half.
Rebounds were highly contested as both teams came into the game with past success in rebounding. Michigan entered with a plus-12 rebounding margin and Tennessee had a plus-13.5 margin. Junior guard Danielle Rauch, who is usually an offensive facilitator outside of the post, had five rebounds and Hillmon grabbed 12 balls off the glass.
Play in the post dominated the game as Michigan stacked the paint with players like junior forward Naz Hillmon, graduate guard Akienreh Johnson and senior forward Hailey Brown. The Wolverines dared Tennessee to take shots from the outside, and the Lady Vols struggled to follow through on baskets, shooting 25.8% from the field and going 0-for-6 from behind the arc in the first half.
“I thought (Michigan’s) physicality, on the perimeter players defensively, is where they kind of set the tone. They’re really active defensively,” Tennessee coach Kellie Harper said in a post-game press conference. “That frustrated us a bit. It bothered us a little bit offensively. They were patient and found opportunities to move the ball and get good looks.”
While Tennessee had the size advantage in the paint, Hillmon, Hailey Brown and Johnson fought hard for rebounds and layups. In one possession early in the game, junior wing Leigha Brown found an open Hillmon with an incredible no-look bounce pass. Hillmon was subsequently blocked by Tennessee’s 6-foot-5 center Tamari Key.
Both teams played physically and aggressively. Johnson was seen in the first quarter body-checking a Tennessee player on her way to help Hillmon off the floor after she had fallen. In play, the smaller Wolverines were agile and willing to charge into the Lady Vols in order to put the ball in the basket.
“Throughout the year we’ve been talking about toughness,” Hillmon said. “In this case toughness was getting on the floor, boxing out, rebounding, doing everything we could knowing that we were undersized. It was a very physical game, both ways.”
Defensively, Michigan made very few mistakes. Tennessee’s main scorers, Rennia Davis (17.5 points per game) and Rae Burrell (17.0), were held to only two points each in the first half on their way to 12 and 11 points, respectively. The Wolverines forced the Lady Vols to turn over the ball 15 times throughout the game. The pressure constant, Rauch tallied five steals.
By far the most complete game the Wolverines have played, the defense dominated and the offense — while starting cold — heated up quickly as three players finished with more than 14 points. At one point over the second and third quarters, Michigan went on a 22-5 scoring run.
Hailey Brown finished the game 4-for-6 from behind the arc with 14 points as Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico’s game plan gave her more shooting opportunities. Each deep shot she made sent the bench screaming with excitement. Leigha Brown finished with 23 points and led the team in scoring.
“I thought for the success of our team that (Hailey Brown) needed to get more involved offensively and that she needed to get more touches,” Barnes Arico said. “That’s kind of been something that we’ve emphasized during the course of this tournament and that we’ve been emphasizing in practice. She’s so smart. Her basketball IQ is off the charts.”
The Wolverines played a complete game on both ends of the field and got their first Sweet Sixteen berth out of it.
As it proved today, Michigan is as dangerous as any other team remaining in the tournament.