Michigan vs Michigan State takeaways: Hillmon, Wolverines hold off Spartans

COLLEGE PARK, MD - DECEMBER 28: Naz Hillmon #00 of the Michigan Wolverines drives to the hoop against Stephanie Jones #24 of the Maryland Terrapins at Xfinity Center on December 28, 2019 in College Park, Maryland. (Photo by G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images)
COLLEGE PARK, MD - DECEMBER 28: Naz Hillmon #00 of the Michigan Wolverines drives to the hoop against Stephanie Jones #24 of the Maryland Terrapins at Xfinity Center on December 28, 2019 in College Park, Maryland. (Photo by G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images) /

The Wolverines claim a gutty rivalry road W

EAST LANSING, MI — The in-state rivalry between Michigan and Michigan State is no joke — the past five matchups between the Spartans and Wolverines have drawn at least 11,000 fans to the Breslin and Crisler Centers — and Sunday evening’s rendition in East Lansing didn’t disappoint.

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The visitors from Ann Arbor built as much as an 18-point lead with just over a minute remaining in the second quarter, only for the home team to respond with a 18-7 third quarter advantage and eventually take a one point lead with eight minutes left in the game. With the raucous Breslin Center crowd at its peak volume of the night, the Wolverines countered with a 7-0 run on the road and held on for an impressive 65-57 victory.

Michigan completed its first regular-season sweep of Michigan State since the 2014-15 season and moved to 18-9 overall and 9-7 in the Big Ten, while Michigan State fell to 14-13 and 7-9 in the conference. Both teams have two games remaining before the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis begins on March 4.

Here are the main takeaways from the contest:

Michigan stayed composed in a hostile environment for in-state sweep

After mounting a 40-22 advantage late in the second quarter, the Wolverines allowed a 14-1 Spartans run that spanned into the third quarter. Michigan struggled mightily on offense coming out of the locker room — the Wolverines converted on just one of five field goal attempts, committed ten turnovers and scored just seven points in the frame.

Michigan State continued its charge in the fourth quarter and even took a 49-48 lead with just under eight minutes remaining off a layup from Nia Clouden. With Michigan’s Hailey Brown and Akienreh Johnson in foul trouble, Michigan got two key baskets from Naz Hillmon to retake a 55-49 lead and got enough stops to hold on for the win.

“We had to figure out a way to bounce back after they took that lead and finish the game,” said Michigan Coach Kim Barnes Arico. “Really the proud of the way our kids were able to do that.”

The win marked a rarity in the series between the two schools separated by just 50 miles — a second consecutive Michigan win over Michigan State. Entering this season, the Spartans led the season series 27-12 and was victorious in seven of the past eight matchups. Earlier this season, the Wolverines throttled the Spartans in Ann Arbor, 89-69.

Barnes Arico credits Michigan State for establishing a standard of consistency throughout her tenure as the Wolverines’ head coach, and admitted she turned to studying the Spartans culture in hopes to improve her own program.

“I always followed Michigan State because they always had such rich tradition and have been such a great program, so I knew that that was going to be a measuring stick when I first got to Michigan,” she said. “It’s always a recruiting battle in the state of Michigan… but we’ve managed to get a few of them lately and the tide has been turning.”

On the other hand, Spartans Head Coach Suzy Merchant knows the importance of winning rivalry games. The Traverse City native didn’t hide her frustration about losing two straight to the rivals from down the road.

“That’s not fun. We don’t do that often… so that was disappointing,” Merchant said. “They beat us, and it hurts a lot. It’s something that I know that will stay with me for a very long time.”

Naz back to beast mode

After a two-game stretch in which Naz Hillmon got injured, played just 44 total minutes and scored only 13 points, the fifth-leading scorer and third-leading rebounder in the Big Ten has gotten right back to where she left off. Between Wednesday’s home game against Illinois and Sunday’s game at Michigan State — both Wolverine wins — Hillmon has connected on 16 of her last 23 field goal attempts and scored 41.

“The way that [Hillmon] gets up and down the floor for a post player is absolutely incredible,” said Barnes Arico. “It’s a tough matchup for anyone.”

The sophomore center exploded on Sunday for 26 points — 17 in the first half — and could’ve surpassed her career-high of 30 had she shot better from the free throw line (Hillmon went just 6-for-13 from the stripe). She also added 13 rebounds, rounding out her tenth double-double of the season.

The Spartans were repeatedly allowing Hillmon to either get deep position in the post, where she’s lethal in single coverage situations, or snag offensive rebounds and power up for putbacks. Merchant was disappointed with the way her team allowed Hillmon to create space and outwork her players on the boards, but credited the center for her ability to “perform.”

“There’s not many kids in the country… that can play with that kind of motor and that kind of enthusiasm and that kind of toughness,” Merchant said about Hillmon. “I mean she just plays her heart out and isn’t afraid to make a mistake and just competes.”

Hillmon’s production was much needed for the Wolverines, who were struggling to manage foul trouble to both of their starting forwards in Brown and Johnson. Also coming through was Isabel Varejao, as the freshman center came off the bench to score 10 points. Freshman Maddie Nolan scored just three but contributed a young career-high with seven rebounds.

“I think the theme this year has been… next woman up,” said Hillmon. “The people who came in really stepped up.”

With Kayla Robbins sidelined with an ACL tear and Danielle Rauch out indefinitely with a hand injury, Michigan will continue to rely on Hillmon’s on-court leadership as well as contributions from role players with postseason play on the horizon.

Michigan State continues season of inconsistency

Although Taryn McCutcheon and Nia Clouden combined for 32 points on 10-for-24 shooting Sunday, the rest of the Spartans shot 9-for-37 from the field on the night, just 24%. The Spartans shot an abysmal 31% overall. Though they made a run in the second half to overcome an 18-point deficit and take a one-point lead, they seemed to run out of gas in down the stretch.

“It just seemed like it was so hard to come back and when we did, we would just have like random little things that added up where we just couldn’t get over the hump,” said Merchant.

The Spartans entered their contest against the Wolverines having won three straight, including a signature 57-53 home victory against Rutgers on February 13. Prior to that stretch, Michigan State had suffered five consecutive defeats including three by at least 28 points.

It’s been a season of inconsistency — especially in conference play — that the Spartans have struggled to decode with just two games left in the campaign. According to Charlie Creme’s Bracketology, Michigan State would not be in the NCAA Tournament if the season ended today and would likely be competing in the WNIT.

“It’s been a tough stretch,” Merchant said. “We don’t play a lot of kids and we have bigger young kids… it’s not an excuse, it’s a reality.”

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