Michigan women enter NCAA Tournament at hoops program’s peak

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — Kim Barnes Arico a decade ago left her close-knit family in New York and New Jersey, as well as a stable job at St. John’s, to turn Michigan’s women’s basketball program into a consistent winner for the first time.

Barnes has pulled off the feat.

She is leading Michigan to the NCAA Tournament for a fifth time. The program’s previous eight coaches combined for just four appearances in the top-tier tournament.

Barnes Arico has helped the third-seeded Wolverines earn their highest seed in the NCAA Tournament, giving them the advantage of hosting at least one game. Michigan plays 14th-seeded American at home on Saturday and the winner will match up with No. 6 BYU or No. 11 Villanova on Monday.

“Every team is so good that you can’t look past anyone,” Barnes Arico said recently in her office that overlooks Michigan Stadium. “But we’ve beaten some great teams, including Baylor, when we play like we’re capable.”

Michigan is entering the tournament at its program’s peak, making a fourth straight appearance, with the best women’s basketball player in school history leading the way.

Naz Hillmon became the first woman at Michigan to be named to The Associated Press All-America first team on Wednesday. The 6-foot-2 senior forward averaged nearly a double-double, scoring 21 points and grabbing 9.4 rebounds a game for a team that won 22 times and went 13-4 in the Big Ten.

Hillmon, who is from Cleveland, had a lot of choices coming out of high school and bought into Barnes Arico’s vision to expand her game and take the program to new heights.

“She took me step by step through what she wanted me to accomplish individually so the team would get better,” Hillmon recalled.

It worked out for both of them.

The coach worked with the young star on her footwork as soon as she stepped on campus, helping her go on to win Big Ten freshman of the year honors and the conference’s award for its top reserve. They teamed up to take Hillmon’s game beyond low-post moves, setting her up to be a second-team All-American as a junior and voted onto the first team this season.

Michigan, meanwhile, has consistently become one of the better teams in the highly competitive Big Ten and reached the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 last year for the first time. It’s no coincidence all of that happened during Hillmon’s career.

“She raised the level of the program and helped each of her teammates get better,” Barnes Arico said.

Hillmon has had plenty of help from teammates, including Leigha Brown this season. The current group of women wearing the maize are following a relatively successful string of seasons.

Barnes Arco, who is from Mastic Beach, New York, was rolling at St. John’s by advancing in three straight NCAA Tournaments when she took on the challenge of making Michigan relevant in women’s basketball.

With a senior-laden team, she helped her first team at Michigan win its 22nd game in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

“After they all graduated and I had my first recruiting class I said, `Oh my gosh. Are we going to win a game?” she recalled asking. “That’s why you sign a six-year deal instead of a four-year deal.”

Barnes Arico’s first recruiting class built a foundation with three straight WNIT appearances and expected to be in the 2017 NCAA Tournament as seniors with a 12-4 Big Ten record. Alas, the Wolverines were left out and had to settle for being in the WNIT again.

“That was one of most difficult nights of my life,” she said. “We went on to hang a WNIT banner and that was a turning point for the program.”

Michigan has not missed an NCAA Tournament since, and Hillmon said her hard-driving coach deserves a lot of the credit.

“She wants us to be the hardest-working team in America and you can’t do that if you’re not demanding,” said Hillmon, who is expected to be one of the top picks in the WNBA draft. “She just wants everything out of us because she knows it will help us be our best selves.”

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Follow Larry Lage on Twitter at www.twitter.com/larrylage

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More AP coverage of March Madness: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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