The No. 6 seed Michigan women’s basketball team is set to face the No. 2 seed Baylor in the Wolverines’ first-ever Sweet Sixteen game. In order for Michigan’s historic season to last past Saturday, it will have to first dismantle one of the best teams in the country.
As the last team to win a national championship, Baylor is currently the favorite to win the championship per ESPN’s BPI. It’s a different beast than Tennessee. Here are three things to watch for in Sunday’s game:
Michigan’s offense is peaking at the right time, but that might not matter against a Baylor team that boasts one of the best defenses in the country. The Wolverines shot 40.5% from the field in their first two tournament games, but the Lady Bears have the best defensive field goal percentage in the nation, holding opponents to 31.7% from the field.
The tandem of junior wing Leigha Brown and junior forward Naz Hillmon has been the key to powering Michigan through the first two rounds of the Tournament, but they will need to see similar production from senior forward Hailey Brown and graduate guard Akienreh Johnson to keep pace with Baylor’s defense.
Hillmon will undoubtedly be the focus of the Lady Bear’s defense. Forward NaLyssa Smith, a Wade Trophy finalist with Hillmon, and center Queen Egbo are the most likely duo to try and stop Hillmon. Smith was named the Big 12 Player of the Year, so the matchup between her and Hillmon will be the one to watch on Saturday.
“We’re going to scout their stuff, but at the end of the day, we’re going to do what we do best,” Hailey Brown said on Thursday. “I think we do a pretty good job of applying our defense, working on the stuff that we’ve been doing in practice. They’re a tough team, but I think we’re ready for that challenge. It’s just going to be what Michigan does and what we can do. We’re going to focus on our team.”
Michigan has shown in the past two games it has the ability to beat teams in other ways besides Hillmon, but the multi-headed dragon of Baylor’s defense might prove too much.
After the team announced that starting point guard Amy Dilk was not with the team due to a medical issue, junior Danielle Rauch assumed the starting role. Dilk’s void left a huge question mark on Michigan’s roster, but, thus far, Rauch has done more than her fair share in leading the team. Her energy has been pivotal in the tournament so far.
Along with the rest of the team, Rauch will face her toughest matchup as she goes head-to-head with point guard Moon Ursin. Rauch will be in an unfamiliar position as she will have a two-inch height advantage over Ursin. Despite the advantage, Ursin’s speed could cause issues in the backcourt. Ursin averages 11.6 points per game and has the highest usage rate of any player on the team. Rauch appears to be over-matched, making this matchup just as important as the Hillmon-Smith one in the paint.
Poise in Michigan vs Baylor
The discrepancy in Michigan and Baylor’s Sweet Sixteen records goes without saying. This will be Baylor’s 16th time playing on the second weekend. The Wolverines have already faced — and handily beaten — one basketball blueblood in Tennessee already this postseason. But the stakes are higher.
Although all games are played at neutral sites, the Lady Bears are playing less than three hours from home. With a limited number of fans allowed, it has the potential to feel more like a Baylor home game than a true neutral game. This fact doesn’t phase Michigan.
Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico knows her players are up for the challenge. This game has been the goal of the program since Barnes Arico came to Ann Arbor nine seasons ago, so a little fan noise won’t deter the squad.