March 24, 2021 

How the Michigan Wolverines reached their first Sweet 16

Familiar territory for Kim Barnes Arico

SAN ANTONIO, TX – MARCH 23: The University of Michigan takes on the University of Tennessee, Knoxville during the second round of the 2021 NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament. Copyright: 2021 NCAA Photos

The sixth-seeded Michigan Wolverines advanced to their first Sweet 16 in program history, upsetting third-seeded Tennessee on Tuesday, 70-55. Michigan previously defeated 11-seed Florida Gulf Coast by 21 on Sunday, using a 21-2 fourth quarter run to separate from the Eagles down the stretch.

Michigan has been engineered by Big Ten Player of the Year Naz Hillmon all season, but by no means has she been the lone reason that her team accomplished a school milestone this postseason. Here are three takeaways from Michigan’s early tournament run.

Leigha Brown is back with a vengeance

Leigha Brown, a junior playing in her first NCAA tournament, has stepped up in a major way, scoring 51 points over the two-game run. She scored a career-high 28 points in the first round game against FGCU on 12-for-14 shooting.

“Having Leigha on our team in general, she brings a spark, she brings energy and she brings offense, as you guys probably can tell,” said Hillmon.

Brown, a 17.9 point per game scorer, had struggled with consistency since returning from dealing with COVID-19 for most of January. The Nebraska transfer has appeared confident and aggressive so far this postseason, determined to prove why she was recognized with Second Team All-Big Ten honors.

“Leigha grabbed me at the end of the game and was just hugging me and said ‘Coach, this is why I came here, I believed that we could do this. I wanted to play with Naz, I wanted to play with a great post player and I really thought that we could do something special,’” Barnes Arico recalled. “She’s just been absolutely tremendous, and I hope the country had a chance to see her the last couple games because she did start the season this way.”

Danielle Rauch has stepped up in Dilk’s absence

Michigan fans received troubling news just moments before tip off against FGCU when the team announced that starting point guard Amy Dilk did not travel to San Antonio due to a “medical issue.”

Junior guard Danielle Rauch has started both tournament games at point guard, steadily engineering the team in Dilk’s absence by totaling 13 points, five assists and six steals.

Rauch is frequently the most vocal voice on the team’s bench, providing Michigan with an energy boost despite not seeing much playing time. Entering the tournament, Rauch had averaged just 12.9 minutes and 1.3 points per game. She’s stayed ready, seizing an opportunity to elevate the depth-challenged Wolverines.

“[Rauch]’s number was called and she has been ready. As a coach, that’s just the greatest reward ever,” Barnes Arico said. “She’s the greatest kid and the greatest teammate and the hardest worker I have ever been around. She’s been outstanding, and our team loves it — I love it — to see her success.”

Barnes Arico takes second school to Sweet 16

In her ninth season coaching Michigan women’s basketball, Kim Barnes Arico has reached the Sweet 16 — uncharted territory for the program. It’s the New York native’s second career appearance in the NCAA tournament’s third round, also doing so with St. John’s in 2012.

“This is a level that a lot of coaches go through their whole entire career and never get there,” Barnes Arico said. “I feel so fortunate that we were able to do it at St. John’s, and now to do it at Michigan is absolutely incredible.”

Barnes Arico has repeatedly spoken to her team’s chemistry amid a year of firsts — no better evidenced by Hillmon getting emotional while discussing the significance of reaching the Sweet 16 after Tuesday’s win. Recruiting prospects like Hillmon and transfers like Brown have positioned the Wolverines as an attractive and respectable program on the national stage.

“When you have a team like we do, led by obviously an All American in Naz, but experience and maturity and just toughness,” Barnes Arico said. “It’s great for the rest of the country to see that Michigan is not only a football and men’s basketball school, but it’s also a women’s basketball school.

Michigan will to look to extend its tournament run against Baylor, the two-seed in the River Walk region, in a Sweet 16 matchup this Saturday.

Written by Ben Rosof

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