Heading into East Lansing, the Michigan women’s basketball team was riding an eight-game win streak in which it held its opponents to just 57.6 points per game. Its mantra all season has been that offense will come from its defense.
It’s not that the Wolverines defense fell entirely flat against the Spartans, it just failed to step up in critical moments and couldn’t rescue the offense, which struggled throughout.
“Our defense was really solid for 28, 29 seconds and then they made big plays down the stretch to finish it off,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said.
In the first few minutes of the game, the Wolverines’ defense came out strong. They negated the Spartans’ chances by forcing three turnovers in the first three minutes of the game en route to an 8-0 early lead.
Michigan State called a timeout to make offensive adjustments, though, and it didn’t look back. The Spartans would go on an 11-2 run halfway through the first quarter and grabbed four rebounds to control the tempo. Michigan’s defensive wall was starting to crumble.
The Wolverines adjusted near the end of the first quarter, not allowing a single point in the final three minutes. The key difference: Michigan imposed its will on the defensive glass.
The Wolverines continued to hang tough in the second quarter as each team scored 15 points in the period. Michigan did a particularly good job in the first five minutes of the second, holding the Spartans to four points.
But the Wolverines’ defensive rebounding didn’t hold up against repeated contact from the Spartans. Michigan State’s physicality led to easy offensive rebounds that tested Michigan. Defense allowed the Wolverines to tread water, but they never got the stops that would give them a comfortable lead.
Even as the Spartans dominated possession in the paint, they struggled from 3-point range in the first half, shooting 1-of-5. The Spartans knew if they wanted to escape their deficit they would need to get hot from outside.
And with an adjustment to their game plan that focused on the perimeter, Michigan State kickstarted a second-half explosion. On a 20-6 scoring run, the Spartans rode their 5-for-8 3-point shooting all the way to the bank.
“We started running ball screens most of that second half,” Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant said. “So we stopped (trying to pop and kind of play out of that) and we tried to open it up to drive a little bit more and then run some more kinds of slips and double stags and different actions just to try to get (players) freed up on pin downs and to be able to play in space a little bit longer.”
The Wolverines’ defense — stout as it had seemed before — couldn’t catch a break as the Spartans shot 75% from the field in the third. Heading into the fourth down by eight, Michigan knew it had to clamp up defensively to give itself a chance.
In the first five minutes of the fourth, the Wolverines played their best defense all game, holding the Spartans to zero points, forcing two turnovers to help give Michigan a shot at redemption. But they couldn’t capitalize.
This put the defense in a difficult position, as the Spartans would have long possessions in which Michigan looked like it was playing spectacular defense only for Michigan State to hit crucial three pointers as the shot clock expired.
“We were so close so many times,” Barnes Arico said. “When the shot clock was at two or one and they made big bucket after big bucket.”
Tellingly, this loss is Michigan’s first when it outrebounded its opponent — the Wolverines held an 18-0 record in such games prior to Thursday’s tilt. In the end, the Wolverines inability to close out defensive stops proved fatal.
“It was about finishing plays,” Barnes Arico said. “Tonight we didn’t and they did and that’s why they were successful in the game.”