SAN ANTONIO — Leigha Brown missed more than a month in the middle of the season because of the coronavirus. She looked fully recovered in Michigan’s women’s NCAA Tournament opener.
Brown scored 28 points, including 17 straight for sixth-seeded Michigan at one point, and the Wolverines beat 11th-seed Florida Gulf Coast 87-66 on Sunday.
“Leigha Brown is a special player and got to talk about that early in the season averaging over 20 points a game,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “It has kind of taken her a minute to get back where she was. She’s an incredible guard and wing, super fast in transition. … The country had an opportunity to see her tonight.”
Brown missed 35 days between her own COVID-19 issues and Michigan being on pause.
“Obviously being off that long you’re going to come back and there’s going to be some rust,” Brown said. “My field goal percentage was a little rough coming back. But I think my teammates and coaches did a great job just instilling confidence.”
Michigan (15-5) will play Tennessee in the second round on Tuesday. It’s the third straight NCAAs that the Wolverines have reached the second round.
The win snapped the Eagles’ 25-game winning streak which was the second longest in the nation, trailing only California Baptist’s 27-game run.
The Wolverines were leading 44-42 in the third quarter before Brown took over, going on a personal 17-10 run against the Eagles. The junior wing was hitting from all over the court and her three-point play with 2:16 left in the period gave Michigan a 61-52 lead to cap the burst. Brown transferred to Michigan from Nebraska after her sophomore year.
Brown made 12 of her 16 shots against Florida Gulf Coast.
“Brown was outstanding today, she had that run in the third quarter,” Eagles coach Karl Smesko said. “Scored on the same inbounds play a few times and that got her going.”
Florida Gulf Coast (26-3) couldn’t get closer than eight the rest of the way despite the best effort of Kierstan Bell. The Ohio State transfer, who was ruled eligible a few games into the season, came into the game as the nation’s fifth-leading scorer at 24.3 points a game.
She had nearly reached that average by the end of the third quarter before finishing the game with 25 points for the Eagles, who finished one victory short of matching the longest in program history since the school moved up to Division I status a few years back.
This was the third straight NCAA Tournament appearance for the Eagles. They advanced to the second round in 2018 after beating Missouri that year in the opener before falling to Stanford.
“To win a conference championship and tournament championship and get into the Top 25 those were fantastic accomplishments,” Smesko said. “We feel like we didn’t play our best today and that’s what’s disappointing and I thought Michigan was outstanding.”
Big Ten player of the year Naz Hillmon finished with 14 points and 13 rebounds for the Wolverines.
She picked up her second foul early in the second quarter and sat out the rest of the half. With the game tied at 31, Michigan scored seven straight points before Florida Gulf Coast had the final five of the half, including a 3-pointer by Morehouse with 2 seconds left to make it 38-36 at the half.
These teams have played one other time, meeting in the semifinals of the WNIT in 2016. The Eagles won that game 71-62.
No. 16 Michigan had been in the poll the entire season, the first time that had happened in school history. No. 24 Florida Gulf Coast entered the poll on March 8, the first time the Eagles had been ranked since 2015. This game was the only one of the first round that featured two ranked teams.
Florida Gulf Coast extended its streak to 504 straight games with a made 3-pointer, but were just 9-for-29 from behind the arc in the game.
MISSING IN ACTION
Michigan was missing junior guard Amy Dilk because of a “medical issue” according to the school. She didn’t make the trip to San Antonio and the Wolverines said no updates would be provided. Dilk started 18 of the 19 games this season and averaged 7.7 points and 3.9 assists.
“Amy had a medical issue and she didn’t make the trip. Obviously our team is thinking about her every second,” Barnes Arico said. “She’s close with everyone in our program and she’s in our thoughts and she had a medical issue and didn’t make the trip.”
Michigan will play Tennessee, which beat Middle Tennessee 87-62 in the first round.