With less than two minutes left in the game, freshman forward Naz Hillmon notched a crucial layup to give the Michigan women’s basketball team hope.
The bucket cut the Wolverines’ deficit against No. 23 Michigan State to just four points. That deficit had reached as high as 15 points in the third quarter, and thus Michigan’s comeback seemed destined for completion.
The Wolverines, though, couldn’t finish the job and missed out on what would have been a huge win — for a variety of reasons.
For starters, it was a rivalry game — and that rivalry has been lopsided. Entering Sunday’s contest, the Spartans led the all-time battle 68-19 and were 9-4 since Michigan hired coach Kim Barnes Arico. Thus, winning the close game would have given the Wolverines some much-needed momentum for the rivalry.
Instead, Barnes Arico and Michigan have now lost five of the last six meetings.
Additionally, Big Ten play has troubled the Wolverines so far, so a win on Sunday would have been helpful. But now, Michigan stands 10th in the conference with a 3-6 record and is no longer undefeated at home. The team has yet to pick up a conference victory on the road and has now lost four out of its last five games.
Midway through the opening quarter, senior guard Nicole Munger collided with defenders while driving hard to the basket. She went down immediately, had to be helped off the court and never returned.
“I mean, right when it happened we knew it was gonna be something that would take her out of the game completely,” said sophomore forward Hailey Brown. “Munger is a very tough player, so when she goes down she’s not gonna come back in the game. But, when we were huddling we were saying, you know, ‘We gotta bounce back from this, like regroup and do this for Munger.’ She’s one of our hustlers.”
Munger’s departure shook the Wolverines, as they soon gave up a 13-2 run. They did regroup and fight back with sparks of promising play, but ultimately missed out on what would have been a momentous victory and a huge statement on behalf of their fallen teammate.
A win would have been huge for Brown, too. In the last rivalry meeting, in East Lansing, she experienced a season-ending lower left leg injury and her team lost the game.
This time around, she got off to a hot start by grabbing multiple rebounds and sinking shots early on. She looked set to make an extra impact to compensate for what happened last season. But with the loss, she too missed out.
“It’s a rivalry game and we had them at home, so it’s a little bit different, but of course I was fired up to play,” Brown said. “I feel like I missed out a little bit last season with that. But it was a great atmosphere to play, it’s just we fell short on the outcome.”
When asked about positive takeaways, Brown was forward-looking.
“We play them again,” Brown said. “So, I mean, that’s the only positive we have. We’ll go back and regroup as a team, get some couple wins on our belt and then we’ll play them again on their home court.”
Prior to the game, ESPN’s Charlie Creme projected Michigan as a bubble team for the NCAA Tournament. A win against a ranked Michigan State team would have sharpened the Wolverines’ resume — giving them a quality victory in a season that’s more than halfway through.
Now, Michigan’s tournament hopes have suffered yet another deafening blow. Now, the Wolverines must think about adjusting if Munger’s injury is serious.
And now, they’ll think about what could have been if they’d won this game.