By Drew Hansen | @UnorthodoxDrew
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS — With a chance at postseason redemption, a tried-and-true veteran and a freshman who barely got any time on the court six weeks ago, the Michigan Wolverines brought down Northwestern, the regular-season co-champion, in the Big Ten Women’s Basketball Tournament on Friday night.
Michigan’s 67-59 victory advanced the Wolverines to a second consecutive semifinal but just the fifth in Big Ten tournament history. If the seventh-seeded Wolverines can beat No. 6 Ohio State Saturday night, they would reach a conference title game for the first time. Michigan (21-10) had lost three of its previous seven games, including its second regular-season loss to the Wildcats this season. Northwestern (26-4) had won nine straight and 14 of 15.
Sophomore forward Naz Hillmon led Michigan with 20 points, her second consecutive 20-point game and the 11th this season with 20 or more. Hillmon was limited to 15 minutes in the second regular-season loss to Northwestern due to an upper-body injury.
“I think my teammates really focused on trying to get me the ball early,” said Hillmon, who started the game 5-for-5 on field goal attempts and ended with 8-of-12 shooting. “Trying to get early touches into the paint, trying to draw fouls, that’s where we wanted to get our quick scores,” she said, “but my coach and teammates put me in a great position to get those close-to-the-basket shots.”
Maddie Nolan, a freshman from nearby Zionsville, Indiana matched her career high with 13 points, on 5-of-6 shooting, with eight rebounds. Nolan, the leader of a state finalist two years ago, suffered a serious knee injury the following summer that limited her senior season to five games. In eight of her first 11 games this season her playing time was single-digit minutes.
But in the nine games before tonight, Nolan averaged 33 minutes a game and became an increasingly important part of the team.
After a second-round victory over Nebraska in which the Wolverines trailed by as much as 14 in the first half, Michigan was determined to keep itself out of the hole this time. The Wolverines opened the game on a quick 8-0 run, with Hillmon providing half of the scoring and adding an assist.
“I just think we got going early and I think that helped our confidence really,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “We didn’t have much time to work on our matchup, and they play a different defense than anybody that you’re going to face, but thankfully we had played them twice. We found Naz early, she got going and she rarely misses.”
Despite Hillmon’s hot start, Northwestern had a one-point lead at halftime thanks to guards Jordan Hamilton and Veronica Burton, who scored 11 and 9 points, respectively. In the third quarter, Nolan’s 3-of-3 shooting, and 8 points, helped the Wolverines take a 49-44 lead.
“I give a lot of credit to my coaches and teammates, instilling that confidence in me to shoot the ball,” Nolan said. “I think a couple of games ago I wasn’t as confident and they’d be like, ‘You’re wide open, you need to shoot it.’ So just putting that in me really helped.”
When the shots started falling for Nolan, it picked up the rest of the team.
“Whenever we’ve proven to hit the outside shots, teams have had to come out in the paint, it can’t be as clogged, and it opens things up for Naz,” said junior forward Hailey Brown.
Nolan, the leader of the Zionsville team that reached a state championship game in 2018, suffered a serious knee injury the following summer. She went from playing 30 seconds a game six weeks ago to playing 33:35 on Friday night. Still wearing a knee brace, she had to work every day to get back on the court.
“We just get so excited for Maddie,” Hillmon added. “We know how much hard work she’s put in, and her hitting those shots gives us a momentum boost. So we really enjoy that.”