EAST LANSING — Until Sunday, the No. 18 Michigan women’s basketball team had never won a game in which it trailed at halftime.
Despite heading into the locker room down 40-33 against in-state rival Michigan State, the Wolverines rewrote that narrative and completed their first season series with a sweep. Coming from behind in the second half, Michigan (19-5 overall, 9-4 Big Ten) ultimately overpowered Michigan State (11-12, 3-9) en route to a statement 77-67 victory.
“(Fifth-year wing) Leigha (Brown) says her heart is still racing because of the intensity at which (the Spartans) started the game,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “They came out just on fire and intense and playing hard. And it took us a minute, but thankfully we were able to adjust and finish really strong.”
That intensity was evident as Michigan State jumped out to a quick 10-0 lead. Only after junior forward Cameron Williams notched a put-back layup in the fourth minute of play did the Wolverines get on the board. From there, the game was a battle of intensity and aggressiveness from both sides — a display that lived up to the rivalry hype.
However, in the second half and especially the final quarter, Michigan found its footing on both ends of the floor while the Spartans struggled to keep pace and sustain their first-half performance.
“We really emphasized defense (at halftime),” Brown said. “We weren’t really following our principles a lot in the first half. … Just really locking in and trying to get the people that we wanted to take shots, especially the threes, I think definitely helped our success.”
As the Wolverines tightened up on the defensive end, they simultaneously found their offensive stride.
Key to that offensive success was the Wolverines’ neutralization of Michigan State’s aggressive full court press after the Spartans successfully trapped players, intercepted passes and deflected loose balls while deploying the press throughout the first half.
“We didn’t get stops early and that allowed them to get full court pressure,” Barnes Arico said. “Once we got some stops, they weren’t able to do that as much and we settled down a little bit, but they got up in us and were super physical and super aggressive.”
The Spartans initially looked like the more aggressive team throughout the first quarter and parts of the second, feeding off the energy in a packed Breslin Center. As the game wore on into the second half, however, the Wolverines made adjustments that allowed them to take control when it mattered most.
Those adjustments were facilitated by the usual suspects — Brown and senior guard Maddie Nolan. The duo led the charge for the Wolverines on offense. Brown finished with a double-double, notching 29 points and 12 rebounds along with eight assists — all team-highs. She served as a complete leader, facilitator and scorer on the floor throughout the matchup.
Nolan knocked down five of the team’s seven total 3-pointers, many of them coming in crucial moments. Her shots helped keep Michigan within striking distance in the first half and contributed to extending the comeback lead in the second.
“When (Nolan is) hitting shots like that, it’s really really hard to guard us,” Brown said. “She was shooting with a lot of confidence today.”
Graduate forward Emily Kiser also contributed to the Wolverines’ turnaround performance after the halftime break. Kiser, a leader and integral component in Michigan’s offense, was held scoreless in the first 20 minutes. Despite the lackluster first half, she finished the game with eight points, increasing her involvement in the second half and allowing the Wolverines to effectively open up the floor.
“We couldn’t really establish Emily in the first half because she was guarded by a guard,” Barnes Arico said. “She was getting double teamed on the other side, so the players were able to make some adjustments and really get Emily going a little bit more (in the second half).”
Although Michigan eventually pulled away in the fourth quarter, the game was still up for grabs heading into the final 10 minutes and neither team’s intensity let up until the final buzzer.
The Spartans refused to go down easy, but Michigan’s momentum proved too much to keep up with down the stretch. The Wolverines looked firmly in control throughout the final quarter, holding Michigan State scoreless for over five minutes towards the end of the game.
In the process, Michigan flipped the script and achieved its first comeback victory of the season in sweeping fashion.