By Max Cohen, Daily Sports Editor
Published January 12, 2014
It could have been the Michigan women’s basketball team’s statement win in a season full of surprises. But the team fell just short.
In what could’ve been a coming out party for the Wolverines in front of a pom-pom waving lower bowl, the Spartans (3-0 Big Ten, 11-6 overall) played the role of spoiler. Michigan left the Crisler Center with the first blemish on its Big Ten schedule.
The Wolverines (2-1, 11-5) couldn’t shake off early offensive shortcomings produced by Michigan State’s smothering defense en route to a 79-72 loss. Though Michigan eliminated the early deficit on the scoreboard, the expended efforts of the comeback prevented a second one later.
Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said the stingy Spartan defense took a physical toll on the Wolverines, particularly the guards.
“That wear and tear — (freshman guard Siera Thompson) played 40 minutes — really takes a toll.”
Michigan State took a 67-65 lead with 2:47 left when forward Becca Mills made a jumper from the key. The Wolverines responded with turnovers on their next two possessions. Mills extended the lead to 69-65 with just over a minute remaining. After Smith missed wide on a 3-pointer with the shot clock expiring, the Spartans sealed the game from the free-throw line.
For much of the first half, Michigan could get little going offensively, cloaked by a tight Spartan defense. Forced to frequently take unbalanced shots as the shot clock wound down, the Wolverines were down 26-17 with under four minutes left in the half.
Then, Michigan’s offensive focus shifted. The Wolverines needed to pound the ball inside to create a comeback, and junior forward Cyesha Goree was the catalyst. Smothered by her defender with five seconds left on the shot clock late in the first half, Goree advanced towards the basket, taking it straight at her defender. Even with the arrival of the extra defender, Goree laid the ball in over both defenders and was fouled to start the spurt that ignited the Wolverines.
“If I want the ball, whether I get it or not, I’m going to draw attention to myself to create shots either for my teammates or myself,” Goree said.
Michigan ended the first half on an 11-2 run, largely due to a strong presence in the paint. On the possession that brought the Wolverines within two, they collected two offensive rebounds before Goree fought off contact for another layup. The forward scored nine consecutive points to end the first half.
Michigan continued penetrating the ball inside to start the second half. The Wolverines scored their first 11 points of the half either around the basket or on free throws. After Michigan took a 37-32 lead, Michigan State went on an 8-0 run to take a lead of its own.
The Spartans stretched their lead to 44-41 before the Wolverines extended their offense to beyond the 3-point line. Ristovski and freshman guard Paige Rakers made back-to-back 3-pointers to give Michigan a brief lead in the seesaw-like second half. Lead changes became abundant, with the Spartans attacking the Wolverines’ interior, while Michigan went right back at them on the other end. Ultimately, the Wolverines didn’t have the power to mount another comeback.
Michigan State settled in to a 65-60 lead with just under six minutes left in the game before Ristovski hit another 3-pointer to bring the Wolverines to within two. On Michigan’s next possession, senior forward Val Driscoll found Goree inside for a layup with a defender in her face to tie the game.
The Wolverines fared much better from the field in the second half, finding more quality shot opportunities after the Spartans placed a more concerted effort on stopping Michigan’s interior game. The Wolverines shot 56.7 percent from the field in the half, including four-for-nine from beyond the arc. But even that wasn’t enough to earn a victory, because Michigan State fared even better from the field, knocking down 58.1 percent of their shots after the break.
Thompson led the four Wolverines who scored in double figures with 16 points. Goree led the team with 10 rebounds in the narrow defeat.
Though Michigan State came away with the victory, Barnes Arico is confident that the Wolverines are on their way to narrowing the traditional gap between the two programs.
“I think tonight we showed that we’re right there,” Barnes Arico said.