EAST LANSING — Rankings don’t matter in rivalry games.
If the No. 4 Michigan women’s basketball team didn’t know that heading into East Lansing, it learned quickly.
In a shocking upset, the Wolverines (20-3 overall, 11-2 Big Ten) fell to the Spartans, (13-10, 7-5), 63-57.
“We knew that when we come into this game, records go out the window,” senior guard Danielle Rauch said. “They punched, and we crumbled a little bit.”
And the Spartans delivered blows to the Wolverines’ identity all night. Michigan — which usually dominates the glass — couldn’t keep Michigan State from collecting offensive boards. The Spartans finished the first quarter with four offensive rebounds and as many second-chance points.
Frequent turnovers didn’t help the Wolverines make up the extra possessions. Freshman guard Laila Phelia traveled three times in the first half alone.
Adding to the turnover woes was Rauch, whose wayward pass at the end of the first quarter sailed out of bounds and gave Michigan State the final possession of the quarter. The Wolverines finished the first half with 10 turnovers and added seven more in the second.
Despite it all, senior forward Naz Hillmon kept the Wolverines afloat throughout the first half, carrying the offense through stretches. Whenever she caught the ball in the post, Hillmon would go to work against Michigan State’s defenders — none of whom ever stood a chance.
Hillmon finished the first half with 14 points on 6-for-7 shooting and added six rebounds, helping Michigan to a meager 29-26 lead.
“Obviously we try to go to Naz as much as we can,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “She’s such a dominant scorer and she really demanded the ball.”
At the start of the third quarter, though, a different star heated up: Spartan guard Nia Clouden. After draining her first two buckets, Clouden fired a 3-pointer from the corner. As it connected, she sauntered down the floor — holding out three fingers — and Michigan State took a 38-36 lead.
A few minutes later, the Spartans rode hot third-quarter shooting to a seven-point lead. With a chance to get Michigan back in the game on the next possession, Phelia traveled yet again.
The Breslin Center erupted, forcing Barnes Arico to call a timeout.
Regaining their composure, it appeared that the Wolverines had stifled Michigan State’s momentum by cutting its 10-point lead to just six. But at the buzzer, Clouden hit another step-back three to send the Spartans into the fourth quarter with a 49-40 lead.
“(Clouden’s) just a tremendous player,” Barnes Arico said. “The big three she made at the end of the third quarter was just phenomenal. When the ball is in her hands, you always feel like something is going to happen.”
The same couldn’t be said for Michigan, though — the game looked all but out of reach.
The Wolverines hadn’t given up yet, though. Minutes into the fourth quarter Hillmon converted an and-one. In the next trip down the floor, Rauch nailed a 3-pointer and Michigan State’s once-imposing lead now stood at a modest two points.
Michigan’s defense helped the late comeback flourish, as the Spartans didn’t score until five minutes into the final frame. The drought ended as Michigan State wing Matilda Ekh connected a deep 3-pointer as the shot clock expired.
Hillmon seemed determined to win the game. She poured in nine fourth-quarter points en route to a 27-point performance. With a minute and a half left, Hillmon displayed her fancy footwork, getting to the rim to cut the Spartan lead to just one.
On the next possession, though, Ekh hit another dagger 3-pointer for Michigan State to go back up four with a minute to go, officially snuffing out the Wolverines’ comeback attempt.
“Every game in our league is incredibly difficult,” Barnes Arico said. “… the message to our team tonight was that we didn’t play great. We made a lot of mistakes. We have to go back and learn from this.”
Michigan entered East Lansing riding a mile-high wave of confidence and success. A frustrating road loss to Michigan State brought it back down to Earth.