It almost fell apart in the third quarter. After finding themselves up by 16, the Wolverines gave up a 7-0 run and watched as their best player followed in the footsteps of their second-best player: Naz Hillmon and Leigha Brown both had four fouls and would sit out significant time down the stretch.
In their first home game since Jan. 10, the Michigan women’s basketball team (12-1 overall, 7-1 Big Ten) struggled to hold on late in its win over Michigan State (11-6, 6-6), 86-82.
At the start, the Wolverines looked solid, shaking off the rust seen in their first game back against Purdue on Thursday. Junior forward Naz Hillmon led Michigan with 12 points in the first quarter and she capitalized in the paint off passes from senior forward Hailey Brown and junior wing Leigha Brown.
The second quarter remained much of the same, opening with a 3-pointer from sophomore guard Maddie Nolan. Nolan, Hailey Brown and Leigha Brown all contributed from behind the arc, making three in the second quarter and building up a crucial 11-point cushion.
Michigan State had four players with two fouls, forcing substitutions and unique lineups.
Scrappy defense early on from Leigha Brown and fifth-year senior Akienreh Johnson kept the ball out of Spartan guard Nia Clouden’s hands — Michigan State’s leading scorer.
Within just 30 seconds of the start of the third quarter, the tide began to shift, though. Leigha Brown picked up her third foul and was sent to the bench. Her substitute, Nolan, picked up the slack and drilled her second 3-pointer to bring Michigan’s lead up to 16.
Brown checked back in shortly after that play, and after a series of offensive possessions from Michigan that resulted in no points, she picked up her fourth foul and was sent to the bench. Hillmon hadn’t scored in over six minutes.
And then things got even rockier.
With under two minutes left in the third, Hillmon scored her first points of the second half. She quickly caught fire, notching five straight points. In the next possession, though, she picked up her fourth foul.
Without Hillmon, the Wolverines sputtered until the quarter ended. The remaining two minutes verged on collapse as the Spartans scored seven straight to end the quarter — cutting the lead from 13 to six.
“They went into the zone defense in that third quarter,” Hillmon said. “So really just trying to pack the paint, and not allowing my teammates to give me the ball.”
Entering the fourth, Leigha Brown and Hillmon were both on the bench with four fouls. With just under seven to go in the fourth, Clouden drilled a 3-pointer that cut Michigan’s lead to three. Clouden ended the night with a career-high 34 points — one of only two Michigan State players to score in double figures.
“(Clouden’s) ability to make shots as well as her ability to draw fouls was really what kind of got us in foul trouble as well,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “She was coming off those screens and we kept picking up fouls on that.”
Directly after Clouden’s three, Leigha Brown re-entered the game, in hopes of igniting the offense. Following suit, Hillmon checked back in shortly after to finish out the game. With those two back in, the Wolverines re-established their groove.
With under five to go in the fourth, Brown scored from behind the arc, keeping the Spartans at bay and extending the lead back to six. She ended the game with 20 points, ten of which came in the second half despite playing for only 12 minutes that half.
“It was a big shot but I think my teammates did a great job finding me when I was open, and putting me in a position to be able to hit that,” Brown said. “There’s just a lot of emotions that are running high. Obviously, I sat out for most of the third and fourth quarter with foul trouble so to be able to hit that was pretty big.”
Michigan finally got comfortable again with their best two players back on the floor. The Wolverines went on their own 7-0 run to bring the lead back up to ten points. The Spartans tried to close the gap with a 3-pointer from Clouden and a foul on Brown, but they couldn’t overcome Michigan’s defensive stops.
And as Brown buried the first of her two free throws, bringing the game back to a two-score game, she buried Michigan State’s hopes of winning.
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