Naz Hillmon’s free throw hit both sides of the rim before bouncing out, right in the direction of Hailey Brown. The junior forward saw her chance for an easy putback layup.

But when Brown went up for the rebound, she gave Michigan State guard Tory Ozment a slight push and was called for a foul — her fifth. She seemed unhappy with the call, just as she had on some of her earlier fouls.

Despite her frustration in the moment, she moved past it quickly. As she walked off the court, she looked at her teammates and yelled, “Let’s go. Win this.”

The Michigan women’s basketball team led the Spartans by five with three minutes remaining on Sunday when Brown fouled out. A minute later, senior guard Akienreh Johnson fouled out, with the Wolverines still leading by five. 

With Michigan’s two most experienced players out of the game, it had to hold on with a lineup of three freshmen and two sophomores. And despite being stuck on the bench for the final three minutes of the game, Brown knew her role was as important as ever. She was nearly as vocal as she is on the court, encouraging her teammates and alerting the players on the court when a screen was being set or there was an open player.  

“I was so proud as a coach,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. That’s leadership, and that’s what we needed at that moment.”

The Wolverines held on to win, 65-57, and despite Brown finishing with just six points in 19 minutes, her impact was stamped on the game’s outcome. Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant said after the game that the Spartans may have been better off if Brown didn’t get into foul trouble because freshman center Izabel Varejão scored more than her. But as big of an influence as Brown had while on the bench, her presence was felt when she was on the court. 

Brown doesn’t always light up the stat sheet. She’s fourth on the team in scoring and fifth in rebounding. While shes Michigan’s best 3-point shooter — shooting 36.4 percent from beyond the arc — opportunities from deep aren’t always plentiful in an offense that runs through Hillmon in the paint.

Sunday, when points were hard to come by for Brown, she made her impact doing what she does best: anchoring the interior of the Wolverines’ defense, making it difficult for opposing players to get easy shots near the basket. The two players that Brown guarded most, Kayla Belles and Taiyier Parks, combined for just three points, and Michigan State as a whole shot 11-for-32 on layups.

“She brings that edge, that grit, she wants to guard the best post player,” sophomore guard Amy Dilk said. “She takes on the challenge each and every night. She’s a great defensive player for us.”

Brown seamlessly switched off screens, preventing Michigan State players from getting separation. Midway through the fourth quarter, with four fouls and Michigan leading by four, Belles set a screen up top for Spartans guard Nia Clouden. But Clouden couldn’t get anywhere near the basket as Brown forced her to the corner without committing a foul.

When players did get free in the paint for open looks, Brown sent their shots right back. Early in the third quarter, Ozment got free from Hillmon on the baseline, and Brown came out of nowhere to reject what would have been an easy layup, her second of two blocks on the night.

“She’s been one of our biggest helps on defense, really trying to clog up the paint … blocking a lot of shots and just altering everybody’s shot in there,” Hillmon said. “It was tough, having her in foul trouble.”

With Brown on the floor, Michigan State’s offense struggled to get into a rhythm. It was no coincidence that the Spartans’ two highest scoring quarters were the two that Brown only played three minutes in.

Brown’s impact this season has gone unnoticed at times. But despite what the box score or Merchant said on Sunday, her role in the Wolverines’ win — both on the court and from the bench was unquestionable.

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