All Naz Hillmon could do was raise her eyebrows and let out a small grin when she heard the Michigan women’s basketball team out-rebounded Tennessee. Ranked fifth in the nation in rebounding margin at +13.4, the Lady Vols had a serious height advantage over the Wolverines, as each starter was taller than her counterpart on Michigan.
The Wolverines turned that +13.4 margin into a minus-2 deficit for the Lady Vols, as Michigan outrebounded the taller Tennessee team 42-40. As one of the bluebloods of women’s college, the Lady Vols may have had experience, but the Wolverines were the poised, energetic team on the defensive end from start to finish.
So the junior forward’s response was appropriate when she learned her Michigan team overcame a David versus Goliath situation on the defensive end to secure the Wolverines’ first trip to the Sweet Sixteen in program history.
“They believe in playing defense. They believe in rebounding,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “For Tennessee not to be able to score the basketball, and for us to do the job and for us to outrebound arguably the best team in the country. We’re not great size. We have decent size, but not tremendous size, and for us to be able to do that was really special.”
Hillmon led the way as she normally does with 15 rebounds, but it was graduate guard Akienreh Johnson and senior forward Hailey Brown who ultimately set the pace of the defense. Johnson provided a lot of energy and Michigan played great man-to-man defense all around. Tennessee was never able to get into an offensive rhythm. They shot 1-for-8 to begin the game and could never subsequently find their offensive rhythm.
Johnson was everywhere. On Michigan’s fourth possession after starting 0-for-3, Johnson stole the ball from a Tennessee guard and went coast-to-coast to get the Wolverines on the board for the first time. One moment she was swatting away passes directed toward the post. The next she was picking the pocket of Tennessee guards. The do-everything guard finished the game with eight rebounds and two steals.
“Every single night she’s on the (opposing) team’s best player,” Hillmon said. “She does it with a chip on her shoulder; she does it with pride and energy. She gives everything she has on the defensive end, whether that’s helping everybody else out or her one-on-one defense. I think that is a testament to her experience.”
Johnson couldn’t have handled the defensive burden without her veteran counterpart in Brown. The two worked in tandem all game. Brown guarded center Tamari Key for the majority of the game. Despite a four-inch height disadvantage, Brown boxed out Key consistently, limiting her to only seven points and nine rebounds.
Brown’s defense in the post was pivotal to Michigan’s strategy of packing the paint and forcing the Lady Vols to shoot from the perimeter. Tennessee did this to no avail, scoring only 55 points — the lowest of the season.
The key to this low-scoring affair was the second quarter. The Wolverines held the Lady Vols to seven points. Every scoring attempt in the paint was met by Johnson, Brown and Hillmon’s aggressive post defense.
Brown doesn’t always get the credit for her defensive efforts, but when it mattered most, she stepped up.
“Clogging the middle of the paint, doing everything she can to help people to help others out, as well as her own man,” Hillmon said. “Obviously she was undersized tonight to really work around trying to push their bigs out and also boxing out, which was not an easy feat tonight. I think that (Johnson and Brown’s) decision making on the defensive end and their experience is something that really helped us tonight.”
Johnson and Brown led the way defensively, but the veteran tandem’s energy ignited a spark in the rest of Michigan. Tennessee may have had the height, but the Wolverines had the speed. Junior guard Danielle Rauch fed off Johnson’s energy by generating five steals of her own, which ultimately helped Michigan score 10 fast-break points.
On a night when the offense was clicking on all cylinders, it was still the defense that paved the way for Michigan’s victory. There’s no telling how long the Wolverines’ offense will remain at the same consistency it has seen over the first two NCAA Tournament games, but the defense looks it will be the key.
“The biggest thing is on the defensive end we have to bring that (depth) of energy and intensity night in and night out,” Hillmon said. “There’s no promises you’re always gonna knock down shots. To step on the court and bring defensive energy and intensity is our biggest thing.”