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Naz Hillmon leads Michigan to its first Elite Eight in 52-49 win

The South Dakota Coyotes finally met an elite big they could not shut down.

Michigan v South Dakota Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Michigan and South Dakota each came into Saturday’s matchup having dominated the first two rounds. The No. 3 Wolverines won their first two games by a combined 50 points, and the No. 10 Coyotes had yet to trail in the tournament. Neither program had ever advanced to the regional final, but both were playing at a high enough level to get there.

In a barn burner of a game, arguably the best of the Sweet 16 from start to finish (though NC State/Notre Dame has a case) Michigan was able to hold on late and escape with a 52-49 victory, earning an Elite Eight date with No. 1 Louisville Sunday. Freshman Laila Phelia made the play of the game, getting to the rack with 22 seconds to play to put the Wolverines up for good.

But Naz Hillmon was at the center of Michigan’s success. She led the Wolverines in points (17), rebounds (10), and assists (3), playing 38 minutes in the victory. The offense ran through Hillmon in the post, and Michigan’s defense hinged on her ability to come up to the level on the pick-and-roll and trap the Coyotes ball handlers.

Hillmon nearly met her match in Hannah Sjerven, but the South Dakota center, who had been instrumental in defending Shakira Austin and NaLyssa Smith in the first weekend, was limited by foul trouble in the second half, fouls that were drawn by the All-American.

The Coyotes still had a chance to tie the game on the final possession, but Kyah Watson’s 3-pointer was off, sealing the win for the Wolverines.

In the first half, Sjerven was successful at containing Hillmon in the post, despite her array of moves near the basket. Michigan couldn’t find its rhythm on offense because either the Wolverines couldn’t find a good angle for an entry pass or Hillmon would be unable to score over Sjerven.

Michigan started to figure things out when Hillmon took her only rest as Leigha Brown took the reins of the offense. She had a nice drive from the top of the key and a steal and score in transition, showing how the Wolverines could finally break through South Dakota. Then Laila Phelia got going, finally providing an additional scoring threat for the Coyotes to focus on.

That gave Hillmon just enough room to start to score in the paint and she also had some outstanding kickout passes to find her teammates on the perimeter. Michigan only shot 3-of-17 from the three-point line, but the looks were of high quality.

Meanwhile, South Dakota also had difficulty getting into its offense. The Wolverines sent Hillmon or another big to show on pick-and-rolls, essentially trapping the ball handler, and the Coyotes didn’t adjust to the pressure well. Like Michigan, when South Dakota was able to get into the post, Sjerven made good decisions as a scorer and a passer. But too often, the trap forced the Coyotes out to nearly half court, and they didn’t have passing outlets to make the defense pay for stretching out so far. The Wolverines also used some full court pressure to further speed up South Dakota.

Still, the Coyotes were chugging along up until the start of the second half when Sjerven picked up two quick fouls guarding Hillmon. She came out after her third, and Michigan dominated in her absence, scoring three buckets in the paint in just over two minutes. South Dakota’s offense dissolved without the ability to run high pick-and-roll, and the Wolverines went on a 9-0 run to take control for good.

The Coyotes made a late push when it looked like the game was wrapped up, as Watson and Chloe Lamb both hit big jumpers to tie the score until Phelia’s bucket. South Dakota ends it season with its first three NCAA Tournament wins in school history.