Naz Hillmon outduels Nia Clouden as Michigan women's basketball tops Michigan State, 62-51
The Crisler Center may need to make room in the rafters for another basketball banner — but for the first time in school history this one would belong to Michigan women's basketball.
Vying for its first Big Ten regular season championship since the conference officially adopted the sport in 1982-83, Michigan once again jumped on the shoulders of senior center Naz Hillmon to inch closer to a first-ever Big Ten title at the expense of its rival with a 62-51 win over Michigan State. The victory locked up a double bye in next week's Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis.
The 6-foot-3 Hillmon, who has over 2,000 career points and ranks fourth all-time on the program’s scoring list, poured in a game-high 28 points, along with eight rebounds as the Wolverines moved within percentage points — due to COVID-19 cancellations creating an uneven number of games played between the title contenders — of at least a share or the even outright title, with only Sunday’s finale at Iowa remaining..
“It’s means something and it’s something our class has talked about since we got here winning the Big Ten championship,” said Hillmon, who was honored prior to the game along with three other seniors. “Being in this culture has been really special. Being together as a class, a team and having so many people in the stands today gave us awesome energy, and against our rival. It’s a combination of things that makes it even more special.”
After being deadlocked at 32-all at halftime, fifth-ranked Michigan (22-4, 13-3) got nine points from the Cleveland native in the third quarter to pull ahead 48-44.
The Wolverines gradually pulled away, opening the fourth quarter on a 10-0 run as coach Kim Barnes Arico, in her 10th season, hopes to hang a Big Ten banner alongside the banner celebrating the WNIT title she guided the Wolverines to in 2017..
“When I came here 10 years ago that was obviously the goal when I came to Michigan,” Barnes Arico said. “Michigan is about Big Ten championships and be the best you can be.”
MSU’s backcourt of DeeDee Hagemann and Nia Clouden kept things close over the first two quarters by countering Hillmon’s 17 first-half points with 13 and 11, respectively.
MSU jumped out to a 12-4 lead at the outset, staked by eight points from Hagemann, a freshman from Detroit Edison, forcing Barnes Arico to use an early timeout.
After MSU piled up eight first-quarter fouls, Michigan cut the deficit to 14-10 after 10 minutes thanks to Hillmon’s nine points.
Hillmon scored 17 of Michigan’s first 20 points before Izabel Varejao came off the bench add a pair of buckets. Junior guard Maddie Nolan made back-to-back 3-pointers to give the Wolverines their first lead of the game, 28-26, with 3:48 left in the half.
Michigan then controlled the paint and the second half, while the injury-riddled Spartans (14-13, 8-8), missing four pivotal players, couldn’t keep pace down the stretch.
MSU, which took the first matchup of the two teams earlier this month, 63-57 in East Lansing, went ice-cold during the final quarter, with one make in 14 tries from the field.
During the pregame Senior Night ceremony honoring Emily Kiser (eight points), Amy Dilk and Danielle Rauch, Hillmon received the biggest ovation and left the court during the final minute to the chants of the U-M crowd of 5,640 roaring, “M-V-P, M-V-P.”
Michigan went 14-0 at Crisler this season.
“It was an awesome game for us obviously,” Barnes Arico said. “Any time you play Michigan State it’s such a great rivalry and I think they play exceptionally well against us because they’re so gritty ... play so physical. It was really a special night for our team, especially our seniors who have meant so much to the growth of our program. And for them to be able to go out at home and cap an undefeated home season, and do it against Michigan State is really special.”
The Wolverines finish the season with a visit to Iowa on Sunday. U-M took down the Hawkeyes earlier this season despite 46 points from Iowa's Caitlin Clark.
“We definitely want all of it,” Hillmon said. “We don’t want to clinch a share.”
Clouden paced MSU with a team-high 22 points, while Hagemann added 13 (all in the first half). MSU ends its regular season Sunday at home vs. Ohio State.
“We had some good looks, I thought Michigan actually did a better job defending at our place in terms of the perimeter than they did tonight, but you’ve got to hit open shots on the road,” MSU coach Suzy Merchant said. “And I thought the right people were taking them, but we just didn’t get enough of it.”
Clouden, who averages a team-best 20 points per game, is battling an ankle injury. She said the offense went dry after a solid first half.
“It probably had to do with fatigue, and Michigan was playing really well, so the ball didn’t bounce our way,” said the senior.