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Entering the fourth quarter with a six-point lead would typically be a comfortable position for the Michigan women’s basketball team. But with momentum shifting the wrong way, the Wolverines found themselves in a surprisingly precarious situation — their two leading scorers, junior forwards Leigha Brown and Naz Hillmon, sat on the bench with foul trouble to start the fourth quarter.

Michigan had led for a majority of the game, but foul trouble in the third quarter made the 86-82 win too close for comfort. 

“(The Spartans) were super aggressive and put their head down and drove in the lane,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “That’s something we need to continue to work on because … we can’t have Leigha and Naz out of the game ever.”

After scoring five straight points to increase Michigan’s lead to 13 with under a minute to go in the third quarter, Hillmon recorded her fourth foul and was promptly subbed out for sophomore guard Michelle Sidor. 

Hillmon is like a light switch for Michigan’s offense. Immediately after she was taken out, the Wolverines’ offense turned off and the Spartans scored seven straight points to cut a once-comfortable lead for Michigan to six points. 

Having Hillmon on the bench is an uncomfortable sight, but to make matters worse, Leigha Brown simultaneously found herself in foul trouble. The one-two punch that generates the majority of the Wolverines’ offensive production had to watch from the sideline as their lead slowly dwindled.

After torching the Spartan’s defense for 20 points in the first half, Hillmon was kept in-check during the third quarter by a more aggressive defensive approach that saw the Spartans double and even triple-team her. Despite this, Michigan’s lead only increased when Hillmon was on the court. Michigan State found that the best defense for Hillmon was simply to get her off the court. 

“I just think maybe I should stop playing defense. I’m kidding,” Hillmon said. “I think that was probably part of (Michigan State’s) game plan on coming off screens to try to attack me to get me out of the game. That’s the easiest way to stop me from scoring.”

The Spartans’ size advantage and offensive strategy to attack Hillmon helped them chip away at the lead. Starting the fourth quarter for the Wolverines was a rotation that had never seen the court together in any meaningful game minutes. 

Fifth-year guard Akienreh Johnson took charge and used her veteran presence to hold Michigan State at bay until Brown and Hillmon checked back in. 

“(Going into the fourth quarter) we’re like, ‘Holy cow, who’s going to hold this together?’ ” Barnes Arico said. “(Johnson) is that person. She is the glue to our team. She’s the most experienced person on our team. She’s a warrior.”

Johnson’s driving layup to open the fourth quarter stopped the Spartan’s 7-0 run, helping get the Michigan offense back on track. Her defense, punctuated by drawing an offensive charge, maintained the Wolverine’s lead. 

The first four minutes of the fourth quarter were critical to securing the win and showed what Michigan can do even without their two best players. Junior forward Emily Kiser and sophomore guard Michelle Sidor gave the Wolverines big minutes off the bench. 

But the rotation to start the fourth quarter — consisting of Sidor, Johnson, sophomore guard Maddie Nolan, senior forward Hailey Brown and junior guard Amy Dilk — were just biding time until Leigha Brown and Hillmon returned. 

“I had (Hillmon) behind me (on the bench) and she was standing up the whole time encouraging our team and cheering,” Barnes Arico said. “(She was saying), ‘We’re good, we’re good.’ Once we got her back in the game we would be able to reestablish ourselves … but the ability to stay positive and the ability for the kids on the court to make some big plays and hold it to where it was was really important.”

Leigha Brown checked back into the game with 7:26 remaining as Michigan nursed a three-point lead. Brown immediately took over the primary ball handling. Johnson didn’t fade away, though. She made one of the biggest plays of the game shortly after by blocking a layup and then drawing a personal foul from forward Mardrekia Cook, forcing her foul out of the game. 

Hillmon checked back in with just over five minutes remaining to seal the game. 

“(Hillmon) is the best player in the country and she needed to finish the game for us,” Barnes Arico said. “I don’t want either (Brown or Hillmon) to foul out, but (Hillmon) can get rebounds, score easy buckets and can be physical on the defensive end. I just wanted to make sure (Hillmon) was in the game at the end.”

Confronted with a position they had never seen before, and hope to never see again, Michigan found a way in the fourth quarter to fend off a surging Michigan State team despite foul trouble from its two leading scorers. 

Foul trouble dictated less than a quarter of the game, but the Wolverines’ response in those minutes had a much greater impact than its short duration would imply.

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