Down by seven points with five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Amy Dilk stepped up to the foul line. The freshman point guard missed both.
Freshman forward Naz Hillmon collected the second miss though and drew a shooting-foul herself. Hillmon, too, couldn’t get either to fall.
Missed opportunities characterized the Michigan women’s basketball team’s (19-10 overall, 10-6 Big Ten) 74-64 loss to Michigan State (18-9, 8-8) Sunday afternoon — the Wolverines’ first defeat in eight games.
Energized by a late-season clash against their in-state rival, the Spartans jumped out to a quick nine-point lead in the first three minutes. Thanks in large part to the introductions of Hillmon and sophomore forward Kayla Robbins though, Michigan seemed to settle in.
The comeback run started midway through the first quarter when Robbins blocked Victoria Gaines’ layup attempt. Playing at the top of the full-court press, Hillmon then swiped the ball from the Michigan State ball-handler and passed it ahead to sophomore guard Deja Church for an easy basket. Hillmon — as she has done all season — went to work inside, securing an offensive rebound and powering through the Spartan defender for an and-one. Two minutes since coming off the bench, Robbins and Hillmon had helped erase Michigan State’s lead entirely.
“I thought we had to settle down,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “The environment and pressure kinda got to us early. Once we settled down and started pressuring them, I thought that really helped us and changed the tempo of the game.”
With Michigan’s miniature comeback, the intensity picked up. To the chagrin of both sidelines, the referees did their best to stay out of the contest early. Turnovers, on the other hand, occurred in bunches and helped establish an up-and-down nature to the first quarter.
With just over a minute remaining, senior guard Nicole Munger knocked down her second 3-pointer of the game. Two free throws and a layup by the Spartans gave them a four-point lead heading into the second quarter though.
The second quarter was in many ways a mirror image of the first. Michigan State quickly pushed their lead back out to nine. Jenna Allen added to her 10-point first quarter with a layup, before Mardrekia Cook hit from the beyond the arc.
Behind Munger’s hot-hand from deep — hitting two more in the second quarter — and Hillmon’s dominant inside presence, the Wolverines clawed their way back into it once again. Hillmon’s touch and strength were on full-display, catching entry passes from all angles and with a quick power-dribble, rising up through contact to finish.
And yet, the Spartans remained calm. Allen continued to dominate inside, which provided her teammates with open looks from the perimeter. When the second quarter had come and gone, Michigan faced a five-point deficit.
Michigan State’s freshman point guard Nia Clouden catalyzed an electric start to the third quarter for the Spartans with an and-one and a number of crafty assists.
The Wolverines struggled all afternoon with rebounding — one of their greatest strengths. In the third quarter specifically, Michigan State accumulated seven offensive rebounds.
On top of Michigan’s inability to keep the Spartans off the offensive boards, its offense was stagnant. Going inside to Hillmon — who finished with 27 points — was the only viable option. As a result, the Wolverines struggled to keep up and entered the fourth quarter trailing by 11.
Michigan gradually whittled away at the deficit in the fourth. Points almost exclusively came from Hillmon and Munger though. A deep jumper from Munger on the wing cut Michigan State’s lead to seven. Two minutes later, Hillmon received a pass from freshman point guard Amy Dilk and finished against Allen.
“(Hillmon) was incredible,” Barnes Arico said. “She was all over the place and we did a great job of finding her. She almost made every shot she took so I wish we could’ve found her a bit more. She was outstanding again tonight.”
Unfortunately for the Wolverines, they couldn’t manufacture enough offensively and the Spartans scored when they needed to. After playing solid defense the entire possession, Michigan allowed Cook to score a back-breaking open layup. From there, the Spartans sealed the deal at the line.
“We got some stops but we couldn’t really get many scores,” Barnes Arico said. “We turned it over when we got stops so we weren’t able to make enough of those plays.”
Having had to play catch-up all afternoon, the Wolverines closed in on multiple occasions but could never vault themselves into the lead in the end.