SAN ANTONIO – It's been a season of firsts for Michigan, and now the Wolverines can add a trip to the Sweet 16 to that list.
Leigha Brown scored 23 points and Naz Hillmon added 19 to lead No. 6 seed Michigan to its first regional semifinals appearance with a 70-55 win over third-seeded Tennessee on Tuesday in the women's NCAA Tournament.
“It’s amazing, we’ve been having a lot of firsts on our team,” Hillmon said. “For our program, this is another one. We drenched coach in the locker room.”
The Wolverines had been 0-5 in the second round before pulling off the victory over the Lady Vols. As the final buzzer sounded, the Michigan players jumped into a group hug at center court and sang “it's great to be a Michigan Wolverine.”
“It's great for our university, great for the state of Michigan. It's great to see Michigan is not only a football and men's basketball school, but also a women’s basketball school,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said.
Leading 18-16 with eight minutes left in the first half, Michigan (16-5) held Tennessee to just one field goal the rest of the second quarter and built a 28-19 halftime lead. The Lady Vols missed their final seven shots of the period and ended their drought 1:18 into the third quarter. The Lady Vols' deficit grew to 17 points as Michigan went on a 22-7 run spanning the quarters.
Tennessee (17-8) trailed by 15 heading into the fourth quarter and was able to cut its deficit to 54-44 with under 5 minutes left before a 3-pointer by Danielle Rauch and a steal and layup by Brown restored the 15-point cushion. Tennessee couldn't get closer than nine the rest of the way.
Hillmon, the Big Ten Player of the Year, also had 15 rebounds as the Wolverines more than held their own on the glass against the Lady Vols, outrebounding them 42-40.
"Their average height is like 6-foot-2," Hillmon said. “It's something we emphasized. They are one of the best in the nation. We put it on ourselves tonight to make sure we rebounded. ... Took efforts to rebound. all of us crashing the boards. It was a huge emphasis for us coming into the game."
A trip to the regional semifinals was just another first for the Wolverines this year. The team started 10-0 for the first time in school history. They were also in the rankings all season for the first-time, as well as having Hillmon be the first female player to earn All-America honors as a second-teamer.
Tennessee, which has a long storied NCAA tradition with eight national championships, fell to 28-3 in the second round.
Rennia Davis scored 12 points to lead the Lady Vols, who were playing Michigan for the first time.
“I’m proud of the growth that our team had as women, as basketball players, as teammates. I thought we made some unbelievable strides forward. I’m proud of that," Tennessee coach Kellie Harper said. "We just came up short today with our execution.”
Tennessee was just 21 for 62 from the field (33.9%) and only 2 for 14 from behind the 3-point line
“We rushed some of our shots in the first half, and we’ll definitely credit Michigan’s defense for that. I thought more importantly we didn’t finish layups," Harper said. "I think we missed 17 layups in the game, and it’s going to be really tough to advance against a talented opponent if you can’t finish. And again, I don’t want to take anything away from them because I thought their physicality affected us on some of those finishes.”
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Michigan was still without starting point guard Amy Dilk, who didn't make the trip because of an undisclosed medical issue that the school wouldn't elaborate on. Rauch got the start in her place again and had five points, six rebounds and three assists.
“The last eight games she played 16 minutes leading up to NCAA Tournament. Her number was called and she was ready,” Barnes Arico said of Rauch. “As a coach that's the greatest reward ever. Greatest kid, greatest teammate and hardest worker I've been around.”
Michigan plays Baylor in the Sweet 16 in the River Walk Region after the No. 2 seed Lady Bears beat Virginia Tech 90-48.
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