Wolverines lose heartbreaker to Spartans in second round of Big Ten Tournament

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By Alexa Dettelbach, Daily Sports Editor
Published March 7, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS — With 4:13 left in the first half, the Michigan women’s basketball team looked well on its way to a victory in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament.

The Wolverines (9-8 Big Ten, 18-13 overall) looked to avenge a seven-point loss from early January with rival No. 19 Michigan State, a team they’ve lost to in 14 of the last 16 matchups. And from the opening tip Michigan appeared to set the stage for the upset and a trip to the semifinals.

Then Spartan forward Becca Mills stepped in and the rest of the Michigan State offense came alive.

And for the second consecutive year, the Wolverines fell to the Spartans (14-3, 22-8) in the Big Ten Tournament, this time a 61-58 loss in the final seconds.

“I thought it was a great basketball game,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “I’m sorry to be on the losing end of it, obviously, but I thought we really played well.

“They did a tremendous job of offensive rebounding and giving themselves second chance opportunities and I thought they really beat us, but at the end of the day it was a great game.”

Foul trouble was the story of the second half for Michigan, putting key players on the bench, especially late in the game. The Wolverines, a team with a relatively thin bench, sported just a six-woman lineup and when junior forward Nicole Elmblad fouled out with 4:47 left Michigan in trouble.

After trailing for most of the game, the Spartans came within one on a layup from forward Annalise Pickrel with 3:23 remaining. But a blocking foul on Michigan State’s leading scorer, Aerial Powers, put freshman point guard Siera Thompson on the charity stripe for the Wolverines.

After banking both, senior center Val Driscoll recorded her fourth foul on the other end and two Spartan free throws, coupled with a missed layup from junior forward Shannon Smith and a layup from guard Tori Jankoska put Michigan State up by one with under a minute to play.

A Michigan turnover brought the predominately green and white crowd to its feet and a tip-in from guard Branndais Agee, put Michigan State up by three. A missed 3-pointer from sophomore guard Madison Ristovski forced the Wolverines to take a timeout with 12.5 seconds remaining.

A bad look from Ristovski put the ball in Thompson's hands, but a last second heave fell short, and so too did Michigan’s chances of pulling a third upset of the day — ending the game in heartbreaking fashion. Thompson ended the game with 16 points.

“On the last possession we were looking for Madison for three, and their defense did a great job of denying her and switching out to me on screens,” Thompson said.

The game was much prettier for the Wolverines in the first half. Up 27-13 with less than five minutes remaining, Michigan looked to be on its way to the semifinals, but Mills had other plans. She scored nine points on a 15-4 Spartan run to end the half — including a buzzer-beating and-one play from Agee that cut the lead to 31-28 at the break.

Michigan State picked up right where it left off, jumping out to a 5-0 run to take the lead for the second time. Following a Michigan timeout, Thompson drew a foul on a layup and completed the three-point play, to hand the grab the lead back for the Wolverines.

“Start of the second half we were playing tight and we needed get back to how we were playing in the first half and I think after the timeout we really relaxed a little bit and played more confident,” Barnes Arico said. “When they did make those runs it was probably due to our key players being out with foul trouble.”

Back-and-forth fouls put Mills, Goree, Elmblad and Driscoll in trouble, forcing both teams to look elsewhere for offense.

Ristovski emerged with three triples in the second half en route to an 18-point night for Michigan.

“I just noticed that in the first half anytime Cyesha or Val were down low, the defense would collapse on them, so I just kind of told them to look to kick it out and I would try to move to an open spot,” Ristovski said. “We talked about it and I was pretty confident to get those shots.”

She put the Wolverines up by as much as seven in the second half, but Pickrel and Jankoska stole the show for the Spartans. The two scored 18 and 14, respectively, including several timely layups down the stretch that put Michigan State within striking distance at the very end.

It was just enough for the Spartans who pounced in the final minutes to send Michigan back to Ann Arbor with the possible chance of a berth in the NIT Tournament.