Michigan's experience pushes it past Michigan State

Sunday, January 5, 2020 - 4:50pm

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Keemya Esmael/Daily

Shooting 92 percent wasn’t enough for Michigan women’s basketball team. Finally hitting its threes wasn’t enough. Michigan State kept fighting its way back into the game, getting on the Wolverines’ nerves.

But they’ve been here before, the three new starters on the team aren’t so new anymore. There’s been powerhouses breathing down the back of their necks, waiting for a mistake to pounce on. Michigan itself was one of them, against Syracuse. So, despite an overbearing Spartans team that’s won five of the last six meetings, the Wolverines knew what it would take to win.

Senior guard Akienreh Johnson opened up the fourth quarter right where they’d left off: a triple, in the face of a defender. A tough shot, but the kind of shot that was falling for Michigan on Sunday.

“We ran something late in the third quarter, and they really packed the paint on Naz (Hillmon), and we were able to kick and find Amy (Dilk), and she made a three,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “We ran something to start the fourth quarter for (Hillmon) again, and they packed the paint on her, and we were able to find (Johnson), and she made a three.”

After an offensive rebound on its next possession, Dilk gathered the ball on the 3-point arc, drove across the face of the basket — forcing her way through defenders — and watched another one of her layups go through the rim.

Now, after getting its largest lead of the game at the time, nine, the defense needed to hold. The Wolverines had been in this spot before, in the third quarter, but a couple of quick turnovers kept Michigan State in it.

This time, no easy shots presented themselves for the Spartans, who instead settled for a last-second layup from guard Taryn McCutcheon. Junior forward Hailey Brown smacked it away, forcing the shot clock violation.

“We were able to score in the third quarter as well,” Barnes Arico said. “It was kind of stressful. We got the lead up to eight and they cut it back to one, but our kids executed down the stretch and they found a way, they wore them down and we were able to make all those plays down the stretch while continuing to play great defense.”

Then, senior forward Kayla Robbins attacked the rim. Another two points from the layup. Sophomore forward Hillmon, left one-on-one under the basket, made the Spartans pay. Another layup. Dilk got the ball again, drove towards the rim and watched another layup fall.

“They just came out and drove right by us like we weren’t there,” said Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant. “Especially the personnel that they had. A couple of them, we were cushioning them, and so we gave them a cushion and still got beat. I thought Hillmon just had her way with us, in every way she could.”

Michigan started the fourth quarter on a 13-0 run, its energy overwhelming. Its shots unstoppable. What once was a tight back and forth game was blown open by the sheer ease with which the Wolverines sliced open the lane.

“I think we used the ball screen well,” Dilk said. “Once we first tried it, it was a success. So we went back to what’s working for us and obviously that worked.”

Added Barnes Arico: “We’ve been in it with Syracuse, and we know what the outcome was (a comeback). We’ve been in it with Florida State, and we saw what that outcome would be (game got away from them). So we know kind of what we need to do down the stretch, and I think today, we executed those plays down the stretch.”

Michigan’s final quarter exhibited a team that’s been there before. That’s learned from its past and uses its experience as a weapon, instead of an excuse.