Alec Cohen/Daily.  Buy this photo.

Snatching the inbound pass, junior guard Leigha Brown dribbled the ball once and charged towards the basket. With two Purdue defenders on her, Brown escaped the trap and slipped the ball through their grasps. As the ball skimmed the backboard, Brown watched it trickle through the netting for the left-handed layup. 

When Leigha Brown is out, it’s noticeable. Brown was integral in leading the Wolverines to a 62-49 win against Purdue.

The Michigan women’s basketball team struggled to make up for the junior guard’s offensive contributions when she missed four games due to the COVID-19 protocols in January. Without Brown’s average 19.8 points per game, the Wolverines lacked a consistent scoring threat besides junior forward Naz Hillmon. She was cleared to play for what would’ve been the first Purdue matchup on Jan. 24. Due to the 14-day pause, though, the game was canceled and Brown had to wait a little longer to return to the floor. 

Thursday night was Brown’s first game in a month. Yet, she was fit to play, logging 17 minutes, the second-highest total under Hillmon. 

Brown started the first half with a missed 3-pointer — uncommon for a player who’s 10-for-18 on field goals this season. Minor contributions summed up her first seven minutes of the game as she was subbed off in the third minute. Coming back into the game with 18 seconds left on the board, though, the momentum switched as Brown went 4-for-4 from the line and tripled Michigan’s lead. 

Her form continued into the second quarter, ending the half with 13 points, going 3-of-4 from the field and 6-of-8 from the free-throw line. It was an impressive performance for a player who’s been sidelined longer than any of her teammates. 

“To come out and put up the numbers that she did is a testament to how hard she works,” Hillmon said. “It’s always great having her on the floor, whether that’s offensively or defensively, she has worked so hard, and she brings a toughness and a fire to our team.” 

Although Brown’s efforts on the floor often show on the scoreboard, it’s her ability to get her teammates involved that often goes unnoticed. Brown has 28 assists on the season, averaging 3.5 per game. In the third quarter, having settled into the game, she showcased her court vision.

Receiving a bounce pass from fifth-year senior forward Akienreh Johnon, Brown found herself pressured high in the left corner. Raising the ball above her head, she hurled the ball across the court to sophomore guard Maddie Nolan. Wide open and with ample time to shoot, Nolan drained the 3-pointer all due to Brown’s efforts.

“I think something that people don’t talk about when they mention Leigha is her abilities to pass,” Johnson said. “But it’s just because she’s able to score so well. People double team or triple her but her ability to pass out of those traps is something I admire. It’s not easy to do.”

It’s easy to forget that Brown is still in her first season with Michigan, having transferred from Nebraska in the offseason. With the Wolverines, her responsibility grows game by game. Coming in as a transfer was never going to be easy but Brown’s transitioned seamlessly. 

When Michigan is in a pinch, they will turn to Brown just as much as Hillmon.

“There’s just the trust level and that’s the great thing about our team,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “They’re so unselfish and they want whatever is going to help our team be successful. A lot of times that’s putting the ball in Leighas hands. And we were able to do that tonight.”

Brown’s ability to impact the game after three weeks of sitting out shows both her grit and desire. Against Purdue, she showed just how important she is.