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Finally at full strength after COVID, Leigha Brown leads Michigan into second round

Colby Gordon
American-Statesman Correspondent
Michigan guard Leigha Brown shoots over Florida Gulf Coast guard Seneca Hackley during the Wolverines' 87-66 win in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Sunday at Convocation Center in San Antonio. Brown's 28 points led the team in the victory.

SAN ANTONIO — All the signs of the current pandemic were on display Sunday at the UT-San Antonio Convocation Center for the NCAA tournament women’s first-round game between Michigan and Florida Gulf Coast.

Besides the drastically smaller-than-normal crowd and only one photographer being allowed on each end of the floor — the rest shot from the second level — and the things everyone has become used to in life such as masks and social distancing, event workers carried signs reminding everyone to keep their mask up at all times and one climbed a ladder to wipe down the rims and backboards at halftime.

But the game also contained to what to the rest of the world may be an example of bouncing back in these difficult times.

Michigan junior guard Leigha Brown dealt with the coronavirus back in January. Not only did she have to battle off the illness, but due to her own quarantine, the team going on quarantine earlier in the season and the entire University of Michigan being shut down for a period of time, Brown had a total of 35 days of not even stepping on the court between mid-December and early February.

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You would have never known that she was basically just getting back to normal after she poured in 28 points — missing her career high by two — to lead the second-seeded Woverines to an 87-66 win and a spot in Tuesday’s second round against Tennessee.

“Being off for that long, it’s hard to come back and there’s going to be some rust,” Brown said. “I struggled a bit with my shot returning from Covid, but I’ve been working on my pull-up jumper a lot in practice and everyone’s been in my ear about how that’s my bread and butter.”

After sitting the majority of the first half in foul trouble, Brown was masterful in the third quarter as she scored 19 points, including 17 straight at one point, on 9-of-10 shooting. She’s now two points shy of 1,000 for her career.

“Coming out in the second half the mindset was to be aggressive,” she said. “The coaching staff instilling confidence in me and then seeing a couple go in was huge. To have that much success my first NCAA tournament game is really exciting.”

A transfer from Nebraska over the summer, Brown has been a high-impact player for Michigan from the start. She averages more than 17 points per game and typically spends more than 33 minutes on the floor.

She showed no serious health after effects as she returned to the team in February but Sunday marked a return to her normal basketball self.

“She’s really had limited practices during the course of the season, so for her to be able to perform like she did tonight just shows everybody what type of player she is,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “I think tonight was probably how we saw her in November and December. It has taken her a minute to get back to where she was. But she’s an incredible player and the country had an opportunity to see everything she can do tonight.”

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As she ran off the floor after a postgame interview from ESPN and the staff at the convocation center began the meticulous task of cleaning every single seat, Brown drew enthusiastic cheering from the Michigan cheering section on the other side of the building. Perhaps focused on getting back to celebrating with her teammates or focused on her own thoughts, she didn’t give a look back.

Like perhaps the rest of the world, for Brown, it’s best to just keep moving forward.

“We’ve dealt with a lot of adversity this season,” Brown said, “but I think we’re an experienced team and we’ve showed that throughout."