Near the end of the third quarter, the Wolverines saw the game slipping away.
Michigan State forward Madreika Cook had just buried a 3-pointer, and a Michigan turnover and foul allowed the Spartans to cut the Wolverines’ lead to one. Michigan State (8-6 overall, 1-2 Big Ten) had all the momentum, and “Go Green, Go White” chants rang through an otherwise silent Crisler Center.
Michigan (11-3, 2-1) got its answer from sophomore guard Amy Dilk. Just before time expired, she caught a pass from junior forward Hailey Brown, set her feet and buried a 3-pointer. From there, the Wolverines dominated all the way through, securing a signature 89-69 win over their in-state rival.
At the start, the Spartans set the tone offensively with a 3-pointer on their first possession. They relied heavily on the three early on, shooting 3-of-6 from beyond the arc in the first quarter, including two makes from guard Taryn McCutcheon.
The Wolverines, meanwhile, went to their bread and butter and attacked the rim. Sophomore forward Naz Hillmon was unsurprisingly the most productive at the hoop. Though she shot an unusually inefficient 3-for-11 in the first half, she managed to draw fouls at the rim and converted on 5-of-6 free throws. She finished the first half with 11 points.
“(We needed to) match her energy,” said Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant. “The kid wants the ball, she ducks in, she can score the ball. … If you’re gonna have any chance to beat Naz, you have to have someone on your team that can do the same thing that she can do at the same level of intensity, and we didn’t have that.”
Hillmon’s success down low was made easier by Dilk’s ability to pass the ball and drive the lane. She tallied three assists and no turnovers — which had been a problem earlier in the season — in the first half, and added eight first half points of her own, six of which came at the hoop.
“I think that all of my teammates being such offensive threats opened up the paint for me to be able to get those shots,” Hillmon said. “Especially Amy driving in and attacking the basket, people had to really focus in on her and worry about the outside shooter, so it just really opened everything up.”
Michigan’s ability to force turnovers helped it to carry a 35-32 lead into halftime. The Wolverines picked up three steals in the second quarter alone — two of which came from senior guard Akienreh Johnson. Johnson used her speed and length to cut down a number of Michigan State possessions, especially when defending the pick-and-roll. When a miscommunication left a Spartan forward open under the basket for what looked like a guaranteed two points, Johnson jumped in and swiped the ball out of her hands.
“We focus on defense a lot,” Hillmon said. “We want to pressure them and make it uncomfortable for them because we know that a lot of times teams do that do us.”
In the third quarter, both defenses disappeared. As Michigan State shot 69 percent in the quarter — and making both of its 3-point attempts — Michigan needed its own answer on offense.
At a crucial juncture where the Spartans hit a pair of quick buckets to cut the lead to three, the Wolverines looked in danger of letting the game slip away. But on the next possession, Dilk drove to the basket and picked up a layup and a foul. She missed the free throw, but got her own rebound, leading to a 3-pointer from Brown that stretched Michigan’s lead back to eight. Dilk’s buzzer-beating shot would cap off a third quarter where the Wolverines shot an astounding 91 percent.
In the fourth quarter, it was all Michigan. The Wolverines went on a 16-0 run — Michigan State didn’t score for the first five minutes of the quarter — that put any hopes of a Spartan comeback to bed. In a game that felt evenly matched through three quarters, Michigan’s strong second half shooting — they shot 78 percent from the field in the second half — propelled it to a convincing win, not just over a quality opponent, but over its biggest rival.