Michigan women enter NCAA Tournament at hoops program’s peak

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 24 Women's - Michigan State at Michigan
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. – 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.”

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

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.