Everything hits different when it’s the last one.
The excitement, the nerves, the anticipation … when it’s your last NCAA tournament, it’s just different.
I’m not a robot. You know what I mean? I’m human.
So at this point it’s impossible not to, every once in a while, think of all the things I’m going to miss when my college career comes to an end. Things just sneak into your head without you really even intending for them to — a certain memory or image before you fall asleep, or while you’re staring out the window on a bus.
And you might think for someone like me it’s all about big shots I’ve hit, or beating Ohio State at their place, or stuff like that. But the interesting thing is, so much of it has absolutely nothing to do with basketball. It’s mostly not even about how things have gone on the court. It’s just about college, and friends, and things that have happened over the past four years that make me crack up every time I think of them.
It’s my friends and teammates surprising me freshman year with a day-long birthday extravaganza, including little envelopes and hidden clues and riddles for me to solve, or the crazy-competitive impromptu charades battles our team had last year while waiting for our food to arrive one night during the tournament. Just the silly, unexpected things that happen when you’re in college. That’s the kind of stuff my mind goes to.
Let me give you a quick example from this season.
It’s December, and we’re playing a game at this big casino-slash-mall-type place. It’s the day before our game, and me and my teammates are walking around looking for a way to kill the 40 minutes we have before film session, when, out of nowhere, some guy comes at us from this Winter Wonderland area talking about how Die Hard is the best Christmas movie of all time. (????? What? I’ve never seen the movie, but from what I can tell it has no elves and no Santa. So I’d argue it’s not even a Christmas movie at all.) Like, he won’t stop talking about it. Just on and on and on. But then he’s like, “Hey, you guys HAVE TO TRY THIS NEW HOLIDAY ESCAPE ROOM WE HAVE SET UP HERE!!!!!!!!!”
So, of course, it’s like … YESSSSSSSSSS!!!!
“Is this free????” (Nobody was trying to pay for this, obviously. And it was!)
Everything hits different when it’s the last one. The excitement, the nerves, the anticipation … when it’s your last NCAA tournament, it’s just different.- Naz Hillmon
Twenty minutes later, me and my teammates — and Coach Arico’s son! — had solved all kinds of intricate puzzles and pushed certain buttons and made it through three different stages and finally escaped the room … and then, waiting for us on the other side … there he was.
I mean, come onnnnnn.
Reading this over just now, it sounds like some bizarre dream you have where you wake up like: That made absolutely no sense whatsoever. Which is pretty awesome!
And when — in the real, non-college world — am I ever again going to be able to roll out with a big group of friends, randomly debate Christmas movies with a total stranger, jump into an escape room challenge on a whim, and wrap things up by getting my picture taken with Santa?
Oh yeah, and then, I almost forgot … the very next day, we got to go out and avenge last season’s NCAA tournament loss to Baylor by beating them in overtime.
Man, I’m gonna miss college so much!
It’s not just the experiences, though. When I think back on my four years in Ann Arbor, what I’ll remember most are all the people I met and the relationships I built.
I’m going to think about all of my amazing teammates, the support staff, all the coaches obviously — especially Coach Arico, who took a chance on me and convinced me that this team, this program, could be special.
And, of course, I’ll never forget all the wonderful fans I’ve met. I love everyone, but I have to say … I have a special appreciation for all of our little girl fans. The way they interact with our team, and the happiness they get from watching us play? It doesn’t get any better than that. It’s actually very emotional for me. Having a young girl come up to me and tell me, “I want to play basketball because of you!” That just makes me so proud. I fully understand that representation matters, and that seeing someone who looks like you, or who you can identify with, accomplish their dreams … that’s huge. So it’s an honor. And those moments when I’ve been able to show some love and appreciation in return are always meaningful to me.
I just feel so fortunate because there have been so many people who believed in me and enabled me to develop into the player that I am — the person that I am. And right now my hope is that, at the end of the season, I’ll be able to help bring some happiness and joy to everyone who has been there for me over the years.
I hope that I’ll be able to make them all proud by helping this team that I love so much do something extremely special during the NCAA tournament.
Now, we have our doubters, that’s for sure. We have lots of people writing us off at this point. It’s like: They had a nice run early in the season, but that was then. They’re dead in the water now. They have no shot.
First off, let me just say: Wrong!
Also though: Have you even seen us play?
Did you catch us beating Ohio State twice, or taking down Maryland, also twice? Did you tune in when we took out Indiana? Or for that escape-room win over Baylor? That stuff … none of that happened by magic.
Sure, yes, of course, playing a huge stretch of the season without Leigha was difficult for us. And we struggled through some ups and downs without her. Leigha’s a gigantic part of what we do. She’s an incredible playmaker and a huge key to our offense. She plays with so much fire and energy and passion. So being without her was tough. It hasn’t always been easy.
But the main thing I want to get across right now is the WE — this team, all the players and coaches and staff, everyone involved with Michigan women’s basketball — we never lost faith. We believe. And, really, that’s all that matters right now.
We have no doubt about the strength and character and ability of this team.
We know our makeup, our determination, is strong.
We know we have a team that can win it all.
Having a young girl come up to me and tell me, “I want to play basketball because of you!” That just makes me so proud.- Naz Hillmon
Leigha’s back. And our practices leading up to the tournament have been some of the most lively and competitive that I’ve been a part of in my time at Michigan. This team, if there’s one thing about us, it’s that … we know what our identity is.
We say it to each other all the time: Hardest working team in America!
We’re workers. We do whatever it takes. We just never stop, never quit. That’s our whole M.O. And what we saw last year in the tournament was that playing hard and outworking people … it really can make all the difference in the world come tournament time. If you watched us during March Madness last year you saw a team that was scrapping for every loose ball, diving on the floor, taking charges all over the place. It was just full-on effort, every single minute of every game. And it paid dividends.
There’s a lot you can game plan for during the tournament. You can prepare for certain schemes and watch film. But you can’t really game plan for hustle. For grit. And that’s what we’re made of.
That’s our superpower.
And it’s about to be on full display once this tournament tips off.
Then, in a few weeks, when it’s all over, no matter what happens, I’m going to have so much to look back on and be thankful for.
This program, my teammates and coaches, they’ve given me so much over the years. I am forever grateful for the friends I’ve made during my time at Michigan, and I’m truly proud of where this program has ascended to. Over the course of my time here, under Coach Arico’s leadership, we’ve developed a culture of hard work and determination that I believe is unmatched anywhere in the country. In four years, all of us, everyone involved with Michigan women’s basketball, have built something extremely special. As a fan, and as someone who loves the University of Michigan with all her heart, I honestly cannot wait to see what comes next for this program.
Hopefully I’ve left my imprint on Michigan basketball, and the women who come after me can take the baton and run with it and make things even better in the years to come. I hope that kids all over the country have been watching us, and will tune in during this tournament and take note of how we work, our passion, our togetherness. I hope they look at us and see not only great players and teammates, but also … great people.
Because that’s what this program is all about.
What I’ve experienced over the past four years has exceeded my every expectation. I’ve had the time of my life at Michigan.
It truly IS great to be a Michigan Wolverine.
Now let’s go out and win the whole thing.