Naz Hillmon had many special memories when she stepped back on the court of The Schottenstein Center on Jan. 21.
Her Michigan Wolverines were about to face their arch-rivals, the Ohio State Buckeyes, but the 6-foot-2 former Lancers’ forward remembered winning the school’s first state title on that floor in 2017 against Versailes, while losing in the title game a year later.
Still, the 2018 Gilmour grad always seemed to play at her best whenever she came to Columbus and it was no different in the game against the Buckeyes.
Hillmon added to those memories by becoming the first Michigan basketball player in school history to post 50 points in an 81-77 loss to the Buckeyes.
“I did not know at all. I actually didn’t know until after the game in the locker room,” chuckled Hillmon. “Before coach Kim Barnes Arico walked in there we were just talking about how we were going to take this one on the chin and we needed to bounce back and we’ll figure out how to manage this one loss. One of my teammates then said, ‘You know as much as that sucked you had 50 points.’ I’m thinking she’s being dramatic. I thought maybe I had 35 but she was just like, ‘You had 50 points.’ I was like are you serious?”
Hillmon’s teammate was dead serious, as she had just become the first basketball player, male or female, in Michigan history to score 50 points in a game.
Hillmon closed out her junior year by becoming the first female basketball player in school history to be named the Big Ten Player of the Year after averaging 25.1 points per game and 11.3 rebounds per game through 22 contests.
“One day after practice, our coach told everybody to go upstairs we have to talk about something,” she recalled. “I can’t remember what she said but after every practice I usually do ten-in-a-row free throws with one of my assistant coaches and I was not making my ten-in-a-row and I’m like we have to go upstairs! Coach is going to be upset if I’m not up there and she was like you’re fine, relax, it’s really okay. I’m like no and rushing through these free throws. I go upstairs and everybody’s up there with pictures of my face and there’s cake up there so my team and coaches were able to announce that I won Player of the Year. It was pretty cool that I was able to experience it that way.”
Hillmon has continued to set new school records since her time at Gilmour. During her four years with the Lancers, she set the school record for most points scored in school history with 2,057, and rebounds 1,607 rebounds. Those two milestones led to her becoming the first female basketball player in Lancers’ history to have her jersey retired.
“It’s amazing,” said Hillmon smiling. “It’s the only one up there and to be honest I was not sure it was going to happen and I definitely did not think it was going to happen as quick as it did but I’m very appreciative of the Gilmour community for accepting me and wanting to remember me forever.”
Hillman admitted that she never could have imagined collecting all these individual accolades for basketball especially since she was not even sure if basketball was something she could pursue at the college level. Her motivation for becoming a basketball player started with her mother Nashemma Anderson, who carved out a nice career when she played high school basketball at Trinity High School and then went to play college ball for Vanderbilt University.
“I wanted to be like my Mom and then as I got older a love came for it whether it was just playing,” explained Hillmon. “I loved that and loved the aspect of making friends from it and after a while I realized I was kind of good at this and I want to continue this as long as I can because I’m good at it and I love it.”
It was not until the summer before her sophomore year of high school when she realized that she had a chance to take her game to the next level. Hillmon said her Amateur Athletic Union coaches told her that college coaches were showing interest in her and that was when she realized how just how far she could take her game.
“It was crazy,” she said. “The recruiting process is very intense. It’s a lot and there are a lot of names you have to remember but it was eye-opening for me to see how many people appreciated my talent and thought I was good even at a point where I would not have thought I was good enough to go to a certain school or any school at the college level so it was a little bit of a confidence booster to have people knock on our door and sending mail and calling and texting to try and get me to their school.”
Hillmon’s offer from Michigan came during her sophomore campaign but she did not know much about the women’s basketball program. She said she knew that Michigan boasted a strong academic program. She soon narrowed her list down to three schools: Michigan, Northwestern and Maryland.
“That was huge for me. I wanted to look at the athletics and academics of whatever school I chose and I felt like the Big Ten was a great place to start,” said Hillmon. “A big part of it was that my family was very supportive and I wanted them to be at as many games as they could and living in the Midwest I felt like it was a great opportunity for them to drive back-and-forth to a majority of the games and they do that now.”
When Hillmon went on an official visit to Michigan, it was a meeting with coach Kim Barnes Arico that gave her the gut feeling she would look good in blue and maize. One of the first things Arico told Hillmon was that she would not be guaranteed a starting spot on the roster if she committed to the Wolverines. Hillmon was not offended, in fact she liked hearing that news.
“I do think there were some schools that were not as upfront as I would have liked them to be about my play in the summer or whenever they watched me,” she said. “That was something I did take into account because I knew it would not have been the same once I got on campus. I feel like I’ve gotten the same thing from the time I was recruited to now from Michigan, from being very honest and telling me I need to get better and these are some of the ways you are going to get better, but also them telling me how they would really love to have me on their squad but just being very honest with me about my game and throughout the entire process.”
Hillmon was a bench player her freshman season but she embraced that role. She actually was the back up to former Chagrin Falls’ forward Hallie Thome and had a solid freshman season as she was named the Big Ten Sixth Player of the Year and also the Big Ten Freshman of the Year by averaging 13.1 points and seven rebounds in 34 games.
After Thome graduated, Hillmon cracked the starting lineup but knew she had big shoes to fill as she was replacing the second all-time leading scorer, rebounder and shot-blocker in school history.
“Coming into my sophomore year my coaches and I had a lot of conversations about having to shoot the ball more,” she said. “There were more plays being run for me where as my freshman year was a little bit more defensive orientated, while in my sophomore year they told me you need to switch and get on the offensive end and score the basketball.”
After her junior season, Hillmon traveled down to South Carolina to train for the Women’s FIBA AmeriCup. She earned one of just 20 invitations to try out and was selected as one of the last 12 to make the final cut and won a gold medal with the team in Puerto Rico.
“It was amazing just to be recognized as what they perceived as one of the top 12 players in the
nation,” grinned Hillmon. “It was just amazing to see that our people are recognizing the work I’ve put in a little bit and an opportunity that not very many people can say they’ve had.”
As proud as Hillmon is of all the individual awards she’s piled up during her time with Michigan her focus now shifts to next season. She wants to close out her college career by leading the Wolverines to not just a Big Ten Championship but also a National Championship.