No. 13 Michigan has high hopes with Naz Hillmon

Michael Caterina-USA TODAY NETWORK
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico learned something a few years ago when Naz Hillmon was trying out for USA Basketball and needed to miss her high school graduation.

“Her school had their own private graduation for Naz. I was like, who does that?” Barnes Arico said. “I said, ‘This kid must be really special.’ And they told me at that time, ‘You have no idea.”‘

Now a junior at Michigan, Hillmon has helped the Wolverines reach some new heights this season. The 6-foot-2 forward is averaging 25.1 points per game and earned Big Ten player of the year honors earlier this week. Her 50-point performance in a January loss to Ohio State brought even more attention.

She said that took a little while to sink in.

“The end of that week is where I really felt kind of the emotions of what I just accomplished, and not really realizing it during the game, or after the game or even two days after,” Hillmon said. “There was a ton of attention – and just trying to make sure … that it didn’t slow down my progression.”

Hillmon’s individual exploits have been part of a memorable season for Michigan. Prior to that loss to Ohio State, the Wolverines were 10-0 for the first time in school history. They also reached No. 11 in the AP poll, setting a program high.

They’re currently at No. 13 heading into their first Big Ten Tournament game Thursday against Northwestern.

Hillmon has been a first-team All-Big Ten selection all three of her seasons at Michigan, but she’s taken another step in 2020-21. She’s shooting 65% from the field and has improved to 76% on free throws. She also leads the Big Ten in rebounding.

By now, the league knows what Hillmon is capable of, but she’s still scored at least 19 points – and made at least half her shots – in each of her past eight games.

“It’s definitely been tough being at the top of scouting reports, and people leaving two or three people around me,” Hillmon said. “But my teammates have done a really good job of getting me the ball when I am open and when I am single covered.”

Earlier in Barnes Arico’s tenure at Michigan, she coached Katelynn Flaherty, a sharp-shooting guard who is the school’s career scoring leader. Hillmon makes her impact in a different way; she hasn’t attempted a 3-pointer all season, for example.

“She can affect the game in so many ways. I think she is so thankful that she has teammates that do get her the ball and realize that her shooting percentage is off the charts – we have to get her touches,” Barnes Arico said. “But her ability to rebound the basketball, her ability to play on the front of the press on the defensive end, I just think is just immeasurable. That’s why I think arguably she’s the best player in the country.”

When Barnes Arico talks about Hillmon, her admiration extends beyond the court. And she says Michigan’s players feel the same way.

“We kid around the office: Naz for president,” Barnes Arico said. “Some of her best friends on our team are people that don’t play. Usually when people don’t play, they get frustrated, they get down, or they gravitate to other people that are in similar situations to themselves, where people that are the superstar tend to gravitate to people that are similar to them.

“Naz’s best friends run the gamut, and she is close with everyone.”

For Hillmon, humility seems to come easily.

“I don’t play an individual sport, so it’s not just me. It’s my coaches, my teammates,” Hillmon said. “I just know how important the team is to a team sport, and to Michigan women’s basketball. And I just truly believe that I couldn’t do it without all those people surrounding me.”

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.

South Carolina, Staley cancel BYU games over racial incident

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COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina and women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley have canceled a home-and-home series with BYU over a recent racial incident where a Cougars fan yelled slurs at a Duke volleyball player.

The Gamecocks were scheduled to start the season at home against BYU on Nov. 7, then play at the Utah campus during the 2023-24 season.

But Staley cited BYU’s home volleyball match last month as reason for calling off the series.

“As a head coach, my job is to do what’s best for my players and staff,” Staley said in a statement released by South Carolina on Friday. “The incident at BYU has led me to reevaluate our home-and-home, and I don’t feel that this is the right time for us to engage in this series.”

Duke sophomore Rachel Richardson, a Black member of the school’s volleyball team, said she heard racial slurs from the stands during the match.

BYU apologized for the incident and Richardson said the school’s volleyball players reached out to her in support.

South Carolina said it was searching for another home opponent to start the season.

Gamecocks athletic director Ray Tanner spoke with Staley about the series and supported the decision to call off the games.