The Wolverine

May 2021 Issue

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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MAY 2021 THE WOLVERINE 31 The headliner for three seasons, Hillmon has racked up all kinds of individual accolades during her U-M career, but none of that individual rec- ognition compares to team success. "To be finally recognized as a team is the best accolade I could ever get," an emotional Hillmon said follow- ing U-M's win over Tennessee. "And I'm getting choked up because this group is special, and we work ev- ery night and ev- ery day, and we've talked about those things — and now they're being put into fruition. Finally having that team accolade is something that I've been looking forward to, and we've got it." Hillmon has been a name to know in Ann Arbor for some time, while Leigha Brown burst onto the scene for the Wolverines just this year. The junior forward was the Big Ten Sixth Player of the Year at Nebraska in 2019-20, before transferring to U-M and receiving a waiver from the NCAA for immediate eligibility. On the season, she was second on the team in scoring, with 18.2 points per game, while also contributing 4.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists per tilt, and shooting 52.3 percent from the field. Fifth-year senior guard Akienreh Johnson was the third Wolverine to average double-digit scoring, at 10.9 points per game. However, the de- fensive end was where she shined the most, often guarding opponents' top perimeter scoring threats and be- ing named to the Big Ten All-Defen- sive Team by the coaches. The success U-M was able to cap- ture this past season was something Barnes Arico — who has now led the Wolverines to four NCAA Tourna- ment appearances in nine seasons — envisioned when she decided to leave St. John's in 2012 after 10 sea- sons in New York. She had just taken the Red Storm to the Sweet 16 in 2011-12, but decided to leave for a program that had never gotten that far, knowing that U-M women's basketball was a sleeping gi- ant with outstanding facilities, an elite athletics department and academics at the highest level for a public university. "This is a level that a lot of coaches go through their whole entire career and never get there," Barnes Arico said after beating Tennessee and making the Sweet 16. "I feel so for- tunate that we were able to do it at St. John's, and now to be able to do it at Michigan is absolutely incredible. "I left St. John's because I believed in Michigan and I believed we could create something special there. They had done it in every other sport — softball is great, football is great, men's basketball is great, and gym- nastics and field hockey, tennis, you could go on and on. Every sport there is great, except women's basketball didn't have that history and tradition. "That pulled me there. I left every- thing I knew on the East Coast, I left my parents — my mom's still crying about her grandbabies being taken from her — I left my family that came to every game, I left my life because I believed in Michigan. I believed we could do something special here. I could have that belief and never ac- complish that unless I was able to con- vince players that really had that same vision and that same belief that they could come and make a difference. "I was fortunate my first year to in- herit an experienced team that went to the tournament. From there we just continued to build and build and build, and get special players and now, [I tell them], 'You guys are reaping some of the benefits of the people who came before you, so we must be thankful to our Michigan alums. This is for them.'" In what has been a nine-year build for Barnes Arico and Co., U-M is looking to use this past season — and all the experiences that came with it — to propel itself to even greater heights next year and beyond. A foundation has been built, and she's excited for the future. "It's just great for our university, it's great for the state of Michigan," Barnes Arico said. "It's great for the lit- tle kids growing up in Michigan, and 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." "This has been a special team, hav- ing a lot of firsts," Hillmon added after the season. "Now it's time to make seconds. We have to redo this all again next year, but we're a pro- gram that's coming to compete and it's not going to be an easy program just to step over." ❏ ESPN's 'Way-Too-Early' Rankings Have Wolverines At No. 11 Nationally Plenty will happen between now and the start of the 2021-22 season, but after an impressive campaign, U-M has been tabbed by ESPN's Charlie Creme as the No. 11 team in the country in his "way too early" set of rankings. U-M is set to return at least four of its five starters. Fifth-year senior guard Akien- reh Johnson's status is up in the air as of mid-April — she has the option to come back for a sixth year — and senior guard Hailey Brown is in the same boat after completing her fourth season with the program. Creme noted that each and every player in women's college basketball, because of the NCAA deeming this past season a "free year" in terms of eligibility, has a deci- sion to make on their future. That will surely have an impact on what U-M's roster looks like next season, and the same goes for other teams across the country. Still, he believes the Maize and Blue are set up to capitalize off of a stellar sea- son and keep the good times rolling next year. "If momentum exists from year to year, the Wolverines could be ready for big things," Creme wrote. "Reaching the Sweet 16 and then nearly upsetting Baylor should build confidence heading into 2021-22. "Naz Hillmon (23.9 PPG, 11.4 RPG), one of the best post players in the country and the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year, wing Leigha Brown (18.2 PPG) and point guard Amy Dilk (7.7 PPG, 4.0 APG) will all be seniors, giving coach Kim Barnes Arico the best, most experienced team she has had in Ann Arbor." Fellow Big Ten teams Indiana (No. 7) and Iowa (No. 9) checked in above U-M, while Ohio State (No. 13) and Michigan State (No. 21) also made the top 25. — Clayton Sayfie Head coach Kim Barnes Arico "It's just great for our university … and 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."

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