The Michigan women's basketball team has notched signature wins against Baylor and Maryland this season. Becca Mahon/Daily. Buy this photo.

The Michigan women’s basketball team has never won the Big Ten, regular season or tournament. The closest it came was in 2000, when it finished second in the league before losing in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals and the first round of the NCAA Tournament. 

Throughout the last few years, the eighth-ranked Wolverines have been marching toward the top again. A third place finish in 2017 and two runs into the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament have given them a taste of success, along with frequent appearances in the top-25. 

In those years, Michigan has built up its roster, slowly gaining more talent and athleticism. Slowly getting better. The last three years, though, one program has been a constant reminder of just how hard that final push is: Maryland. Since a one-point loss in the Big Ten Tournament in 2019, the Wolverines have lost to the Terrapins by an average of 22.6 points.

On Sunday, Michigan faced the same test. A week after dropping out of the top-10 in its most-heralded season ever, the gatekeeper of the Big Ten awaited. 

The Wolverines won by 20. 

Not because of an All-American performance from senior forward Naz Hillmon. Not because Maryland made unforced errors. Not because of injuries. 

Michigan simply outplayed the Terps.

Hustle, fight, skill, game plan, talent, athleticism all appeared to favor the Wolverines. The most important factor, though, was experience.

Two years ago, after a 28-point loss to Maryland, Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said:

“I just think it’s experience. I think it’s repetition. I think our kids needed to adjust today. It was pressure, but then the physicality was on another level, too.”

On Sunday, after the 20 point win, she struck a different tone:

“We have experience and our kids really bought into understanding the personnel, understanding their tendencies and then scrambling for each other.” 

Just one team remains ahead of Michigan in the Big Ten standings, No. 6 Indiana, which is undefeated in conference play. All season, though, the Wolverines have shown a knack for exorcising their demons, from a revenge victory over then-No. 5 Baylor in December to Sunday’s win over Maryland. They blew out a ranked Ohio State team in a rivalry game and have dominated all but one Big Ten foe. The Hoosiers, then, are just another big game in a season in which all Michigan has done is win big games.

The women’s basketball program is experiencing a different level of success. It’s not without its hiccups, though. Its one Big Ten loss? A 21-point loss to unranked Nebraska.

“We’ve never been in this position,” Barnes Arico said on Jan. 9. “Now we’re in a position where people are coming for us on any given night, we’re seeing everybody’s best shot. So we have to bring our best game and we can’t have lapses.”

Now that hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament in Ann Arbor is virtually a guarantee, a return to the Sweet Sixteen isn’t groundbreaking — it’s an expectation. And playing in the Final Four? It’s no longer a potential Cinderella run. It’s a goal. 

Throughout the last four years, the players on the team have gained experience. They’ve lost in the final seconds of a tournament game. They’ve pushed into the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament and been blown out by teams in the NCAA Tournament. 

The core of this team is made up of seniors who have experienced it all, with an All-American in Hillmon, a preseason All-Big Ten team player in senior wing Leigha Brown, a three year starter in guard Amy Dilk. It has explosive players in freshman guard Laila Phelia and junior guard Maddie Nolan. 

After years of almost getting to the top of the Big Ten and falling short, Sunday’s win over Maryland showed that Michigan is capable of the final push — of winning the title.