EAST LANSING — Three minutes and 32 seconds remained when junior forward Hailey Brown committed an offensive foul — her fifth, ending her night.
A minute passed, and senior guard Akienreh Johnson committed her fifth. She shook her head as she walked off, knowing she’d have to watch her teammates try to hold onto a five-point lead that had once been as high as 18. The Breslin Center pulsed.
On the ensuing inbound, Michigan State guard Tory Ozment lost the ball. On the other end, her fellow guard Taryn McCutcheon fouled Michigan sophomore guard Amy Dilk.
Dilk made both free throws. In the few minutes of basketball that remained, she made six more, helping the Wolverines escape East Lansing with a 65-57 victory over the Spartans.
“(My) mentality going in there is once I made both two, I got the feel for it, I got the confidence, and I wanted them to foul me,” Dilk said. “I wanted to step up and I wanted to make those shots.”
Early on, both teams came out sluggish offensively, combining for five missed field goals and three turnovers in a scoreless first three minutes. Naturally, it was sophomore guard Naz Hillmon who ended the drought for Michigan, drawing a foul in the post and sinking one of two free throws.
From there, the floodgates opened for Hillmon. Michigan State’s defense had no answer for her, as she continued to dominate in the paint en route to a 17-point first half on 7-for-9 shooting.
“There’s not really kids in the country that can play with that kind of motor and that kind of enthusiasm and that kind of toughness,” Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant said. “I just have always been respectful of what she has been able to do. For us to give her 17 points in the first half, that was just absolutely ridiculous. Unacceptable on our part, on all of our part. We just did a bad job.”
Strong play from the Wolverines’ bigs allowed them to extend the lead in the second quarter. After Brown committed her second foul and checked out with seven minutes remaining, freshman center Izabel Varejão picked up two offensive rebounds and five points, helping to extend Michigan’s lead to 15 at halftime.
But in the third quarter, the Wolverines’ offense stagnated. While bad passes, travels and offensive fouls led to only one Michigan field goal the entire third quarter, Michigan State found its own rhythm on the other end, largely due to the Wolverines’ 10 third-quarter fouls.
Though the Spartans shot just 5-for-9 from the free throw line in the third quarter, Brown, Varejão and Johnson all had to sit with foul trouble for an extended period. This opened up the floor for Michigan State’s scorers and extended Michigan’s offensive woes into the fourth, where the Wolverines missed every field goal attempt in the first three minutes. The Spartans took full advantage, gaining the lead on a layup from guard Nia Clouden.
But after that make, Michigan finally woke up. About a minute later, Hillmon converted a three-point play — the Wolverines’ first real offense in the second half. From there, they locked down on the defensive end, allowing just two field goals the rest of the game and providing the much-needed spark to sustain their lead.
“That run there was something that we weren’t looking forward to,” Hillmon said. “But I think it was our defense that really fueled us and we wanted to say just, ‘Stop after stop. Let’s get a stop and then we can figure out our offense.’ ”
For a team still fighting for an NCAA Tournament bid, any win — especially on the road in the Big Ten — is worth celebrating. But that narrative took a backseat on Sunday, where Michigan completed its first season sweep of Michigan State since 2015.
“Obviously, being from the East coast and the Big East, I always followed Michigan State because they had such rich tradition and had been such a great program,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “I knew that that was going to be a measuring stick when I first got to Michigan and that’s kind of been my goal, our team’s goal, since I’ve been here.
“… This is tremendous for our university, and it’s tremendous for our players.”