March 28, 2021 

Michigan’s record-breaking season ends with narrow overtime loss to Baylor

The six-seed Wolverines took the two-seed Lady Bears to the brink but fell short

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SAN ANTONIO, TX – MARCH 27: in the Sweet Sixteen of the 2021 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament held at the at Alamodome on March 27, 2021 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Kim Barnes Arico faced the media with tears streaming down her face, just minutes removed from Michigan’s season-ending 78-75 overtime loss to Baylor.

“It’s tough,” said Barnes Arico. “We had a great group of players and a great group of seniors, and it’s tough to end the season tonight.”

Three seasons ago, Barnes Arico’s sixth at Michigan, the Wolverines played this same Baylor team in the postseason — except in the second round of the tournament rather than the Sweet 16, and lost by 22.

The Wolverines flipped the script on Saturday, showing a national audience just how much progress the program has made. Baylor led by as many as 11 points in the second half, but the Wolverines survived several runs and came back to force overtime when Hailey Brown fired a perfect lob pass to Naz Hillmon in the final seconds of regulation.

They ultimately fell in overtime due to some timely baskets by Baylor’s NaLyssa Smith and Dijonai Carrington, but the Wolverines went toe-to-toe with the Lady Bears — a team that won its first two tournament games by an average margin of 46 points.

“Baylor’s obviously one of the top teams in the country and we had ‘em on the ropes, I actually thought we had them for a period of time there,” Barnes Arico said. “We put ourselves in a position in regulation and overtime to win the game, so just really proud of our team.”

It was a season of firsts for Michigan, obtaining its highest ranking in program history (No. 11), its first 10-0 start, its first NCAA Sweet 16 appearance and its highest NCAA tournament seed at No. 6. In addition, Big Ten Player of the Year Naz Hillmon was the program’s first All-American and recorded the first 50-point game in team history.

Despite the accolades, the Wolverines often felt “disrespected” throughout the season. Though consistently ranked AP Poll’s top 15, they were not included in the NCAA tournament top 16 list released in February.

The argument could’ve been made that the Wolverines did not play enough games — just 18 in the regular season — to qualify. But this was largely out of the team’s control. Michigan endured a five-week university shutdown, during which they were not allowed to utilize any practice facilities or equipment, so practicing was nearly impossible.

“Pretty much, we were thrown into every difficult situation very season long,” Barnes Arico said. “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.”

The “rust” from the shutdown, so to speak, was evident in Michigan’s 65-49 Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal loss against Northwestern, when it appeared lethargic and struggled to generate any momentum on offense. The Wolverines turned the tide in the NCAA tournament, using a 21-2 fourth quarter run to defeat Florida Gulf Coast, handily beating three-seed Tennessee and pushing Baylor to the brink.

Though Hillmon was outstanding the whole season (25.2 points, 11.4 rebounds per game), Michigan finally found a consistent, secondary scorer in Leigha Brown. After a rocky second half of the season hindered by a 39-day COVID pause, the Nebraska transfer thrived in the tournament, posting 28, 23 and 23 points in her team’s three games.

“Obviously all of you guys see the offense (Brown) brings to the floor,” Hillmon said. “When I’m drawing a lot of attention, her eyes light up. She’s ready to go, she’s not afraid of the moment, she’s not afraid of the spotlight and she takes over any chance that she has the opportunity to.

“She wants to do anything she can to make us a successful team, and that’s why she came here.”

Michigan will lose two starters, Hailey Brown and Akienreh Johnson, next year — both of whom were seniors who played key roles on the roster this season.

Johnson, a fifth-year senior, sustained two ACL tears and a fractured hand during her career at Michigan. She went from averaging 7.7 minutes over 10 games during her freshman season, to starting all 50 games over her final two years.

Brown — a member of the Canadian National Team program since 2013 — started every game over her four-year career at Michigan, and returned to Ann Arbor this season despite COVID-related concerns with her family across the border.

“They’re two incredibly, incredibly special young women,” Barnes Arico said. “Since (Brown) has stepped on campus, we’ve done nothing but be successful and a large part of that is due to her.

“(Johnson’s) first three years as a player at Michigan, she hardly played. If you watch anybody nowadays, they transfer… this kid stuck with it and persevered. She wasn’t getting playing time at all, and became arguably the best defender in the country.”

For Barnes Arico, this was her second appearance in the Sweet 16 after reaching the NCAA tournament’s third round with St. John’s in 2011-12, her last season with the Red Storm. After her ninth year coaching the Wolverines, she appears more motivated than ever to push the program to new heights.

“Most teams at the University of Michigan have won a championship,” she said. “The fact that Michigan women’s basketball hasn’t is what drew me here and made me leave my life of 40 years, because I believed in Michigan and I believe that we can create something special.”

With Hillmon and Leigha Brown both returning as seniors next season, expect Michigan to compete with Iowa and Maryland for a top seed in the Big Ten once again.

“For other people, whether they believe it now or not, we’re a tough program. We’re going to play our hearts out every single night, and we’re going to bring energy and we’re working towards championships,” said Hillmon. “This has been a special team, having a lot of firsts, but now it’s time to make seconds.”

Written by Ben Rosof

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