In its first game of the season, the No. 6 Michigan women’s basketball team hung the program’s second banner in the rafters at Crisler Center. In the Wolverines’ final regular-season home game — in the midst of another historic season — they were chasing a banner once again.
On senior night, that banner came a whole lot closer. Carried by senior forward Naz Hillmon’s 28-point night, the Wolverines (22-4 overall, 13-3 Big Ten) topped Michigan State (14-13, 8-8), 62-51, ending the regular season undefeated on their home floor.
“Really a special night for our team and especially our seniors, who have meant so much to the growth of our program,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “And for them to be able to go out at home, cap an undefeated home season, and doing it against Michigan State is really special.”
But that end result seemed far out of reach at the end of the first quarter.
The Spartans raced out to a quick lead, nearly an exact reversal to the two teams’ last matchup. With Hillmon shooting just 3-for-7 from the floor in the first quarter, her supporting cast failed to show up. Sophomore forward Cameron Williams was the only other player to score for the Wolverines before the end of the first period.
Turnovers on post-entry passes also gave Michigan State ample chances to build an early lead, which they hung onto throughout the quarter. Michigan battled on the boards, trying to find second-chance points in the paint. Yet, with all of the Spartans defenders clogging up the post to defend Hillmon, the Wolverines couldn’t capitalize.
“I think we turned the ball over at the start of the game multiple times,” senior guard Amy Dilk said. “And then on the defensive end, just kind of making a shift, my adjustment in the second half, really trying to … make the other people make the shots.”
After only a few minutes, Hillmon had seen enough.
Putting the team on her back, she carried Michigan through the remainder of the first quarter. The late push continued into the second when junior center Izabel Varejão started to heat up too.
“(At the end of the) first quarter I was like ‘holy moly,’ ” Barnes Arico said. “We just had to make a few adjustments and we just needed to keep our confidence and be ready to shoot the basketball. And if we miss, we have some great offensive rebounders, so just be confident. … We really locked into that.”
Coming off the bench, Varejão became the spark Michigan needed, replacing senior forward Emily Kiser in the paint. Working a high-low post with Hillmon, Michigan capitalized on Michigan State’s mismatches in the paint. While Varejão only notched six total points, her short stretch on the floor revived the Wolverines’ attack.
With renewed success in the post, junior guard Maddie Nolan used the resulting space to find her footing on the outside. Late in the second quarter, she knocked down back-to-back threes to give Michigan its first lead of the game.
“Naz is one of the best players in the country, if not the best player in the country,” Barnes Arico said. “But we’re not going to be a championship program if we only have one player.”
With senior wing Leigha Brown still out, the Wolverines’ second-leading scorer, Michigan can’t count on Hillmon to win them championships single-handedly. But the Wolverines could count on her Thursday to lead their charge towards clinching one together.
Coming out of the break, Hillmon used her usual post moves and tried some newer mid-range looks. The result: she was near unstoppable.
And while Hillmon dialed in on offense, Michigan’s defense forced Michigan State into bad looks at the tail end of the shot clock. The Wolverines rolled with that combination the rest of the game, and extended their winning lead throughout the second half.
With under three minutes left in the final frame, the Spartans tried to stem the bleeding with a timeout, but their effort was unsuccessful. Michigan watched the clock run down and its outright Big Ten title hopes continue to grow.
“(The outright title is) important,” Hillmon said. “Especially for the first one in Michigan women’s basketball history. We definitely want all of it. We’re not the type to share.”
With chants of MVP ringing through Crisler, and just under 30 seconds left in the game, the fans saluted Hillmon in her final minutes on the floor. One timeout later, Hillmon and the rest of the senior class, checked out for the last time.
Solidifying their legacy, the seniors stepped off the court — taking one step closer to hanging another banner.