This season for the Michigan women’s basketball team can be summed up in one word: historic.
The team endured a lot throughout the year. It started with junior guard Leigha Brown missing 39 days due to COVID-19 protocols. Next came the 14-day pause followed by going out in the first round in the Big Ten Tournament. After all of that, sophomore guard Amy Dilk didn’t travel to the NCAA tournament. It’s evident that the Wolverines hurdled through hardship after hardship to make it to the Sweet Sixteen against Baylor.
Michigan didn’t know if it would take the court every game day. The anxieties and uncertainty around COVID-19 became a story surrounding the team on numerous occasions. Yet the Wolverines didn’t let the virus stop it from having their best season in program history.
“We were thrown into every difficult situation all season long,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “And if the rest of the country didn’t see that we’re one of the best basketball teams out there, I don’t know what you have to do to get that kind of respect.”
Success came early with a win against Notre Dame — the first in 12 years. Foreshadowing what was to come the rest of the season, the Irish targeted junior forward Naz Hillmon, who battled in the paint en route to 20 points while also dishing the ball out to Michigan’s outside shooters.
The Wolverines began to roll from there, going unbeaten in their first 10 games only to lose to No. 17 Ohio State, 77-81. Hillmon’s 50 point performance engraved her name in the Big Ten Player of the Year award.
Michigan struggled to find its form in the latter half of the season, going 4-3 following the loss to the Buckeyes. The struggles continued in the Big Ten Tournament, where foul trouble and lack of production in the third quarter ultimately led to the team’s demise, losing 65-49 to a Northwestern squad that it had previously bested twice in regular season play.
Despite the loss and a slow finish to the regular season, the Wolverines were awarded a No. 6 seed, the highest seed in program history. After Dilk didn’t travel to San Antonio due to medical issues, Michigan bested Florida Gulf Coast, setting up a date with Tennessee, a blue blood who served as the final hurdle in the Wolverines’ path to their first Sweet Sixteen in program history.
In the midst of Dilk’s unexpected medical issues, junior guard Danielle Rauch took over Michigan’s offense for the NCAA Tournament. In a career performance against the Volunteers, earning six rebounds and five steals, Rauch proved her doubters wrong. The Wolverines did, too, clinching the first Sweet Sixteen in program history.
Against Baylor, Michigan trailed by as many as 14, but rallied to force overtime after a layup by Hillmon with seven seconds to play knotted the score at 63. A one point game with 15 seconds left, the Wolverines gave the ball to their go-to clutch shooter — junior guard Leigha Brown. As the buzzer rang, Brown threw up Michigan’s last chance at the Elite Eight. She came just short.
“Everyone in our circle believed that they were going to win the game so it’s definitely emotional,” Barnes Arico said. “That confidence and that camaraderie, you know you have something special so it’s hard to say goodbye to this year’s team.”
The loss showed the progress the program has made under Barnes Arico. It also meant goodbyes to senior guards Akienreh Johnson and Hailey Brown.
Johnson was the heart of the Wolverines defense, recording 20 steals and four blocks. One of the best defenders in the Big Ten, Johnson was often assigned to the opponent’s best guard. Notably against Wisconsin, she kept guard Sydney Hilliard, who had averaged 17 points up to that point, to just one.
Hailey Brown was unsure about returning to Ann Arbor. The aura around the team brought her back. She gave Michigan a great shooting outlet when Hillmon was marked in the paint. Brown went 33-for-94 from the 3-point line on the season.
The Wolverines return Hillmon, Dilk and Leigha Brown next season. It’s safe to say that the team will likely be back in the NCAA Tournament. How far they can take it is another question. With a full summer to workout their kinks, what Michigan can do in a normal season should keep their opponents up at night.
This season made the difference. Years down the line, if the Wolverines reach new heights, teams can look towards this season as the one that changed it all.