East Lansing — Oh, no, not again. That’s what Michigan’s women’s basketball team has to be thinking after failing to earn its first series sweep of Michigan State since the turn of the century, falling to the Spartans 66-61 Sunday afternoon before 12,434 at the Breslin Center.
The Wolverines were ranked late last season before suffering a late slump, which cost them a shot of playing in the NCAA tournament. They went on to win the WNIT championship.
Well, No. 21 Michigan (20-7, 9-5) suffered its third loss in the last four games and has just two regular-season games remaining before the Big Ten tournament, which gets underway Feb. 28 in Indianapolis.
It was 6-foot senior guard Lexi Gussert and sophomore point guard Taryn McCutcheon who were the catalysts in the win for the Spartans (15-11, 5-8), who ended a six-game losing streak. Both players were forced to sit out the initial meeting between the teams, a 74-48 Michigan rout in Ann Arbor Jan. 23, due to injuries.
Michigan was trying to earn its first sweep of the Spartans since 1999-2000 — the final season of then-MSU head coach Karen Langeland.
But, Gussert and McCutcheon had other plans.
Michigan scored the game’s first seven points, but the Spartans answered with an 8-0 run and took the lead for good after Sidney Cooks’ two free throws for a 10-9 advantage, forcing Michigan into eight turnovers in the first quarter to build a 21-11 lead.
The Spartans led 42-32 at halftime, forcing Michigan into 11 turnovers, as many as the Wolverines had in the entire first game between the teams.
Gussert got hot in the final five minutes of the half, scoring 11 of her team-high 14 points, starting with a 3-pointer for a 32-22 lead and ending with a jumper with 35 seconds left in the half for the 10-point cushion (42-32).
“I was just feeling it,” said Gussert, who played with a broken arm that had sidelined her for several weeks before a large group of family and friends who made the trip from the Upper Peninsula. “I had a big crowd from home today, through the snowstorm, maybe like 70 people came from the U.P. I had a really good time with them last night, celebrated my mom’s 50th birthday so they gave me a little fire, too. I knew I had them behind me so I just gave it my all tonight, stayed aggressive, last time playing Michigan on the floor so what do you have to lose.
“Injuries (ACL injuries to sophomore guards Shay Colley, Mardrekia Cook) have taken its toll on this team a little bit, but it has not stopped our fight, it has not stopped our heart and we’re going to keep going.”
McCutcheon, who missed the loss to the Wolverines due to a concussion, had eight points, five assists and three steals while playing outstanding defense on All-Big Ten guard Katelynn Flaherty who entered the game with a 23.8 scoring average.
Flaherty scored 20, but shot just 6-of-17 from the field (2-of-6 3-pointers) and had nine of her team’s 23 turnovers.
“She’s an amazing player and I was excited about this matchup,” McCutcheon said. “Defense is my favorite part of the game, so I really look forward to them, especially being on Flaherty who is really crafty, really sneaking, really good guard, so it was a lot of fun, and my teammates helped me out.
“Our main focus was to play off of people who weren’t going to shoot outside, so I could do my best to run Flaherty off the 3-point line, so then when she drives for people to be there to help.”
Michigan State’s game plan worked. The Spartans limited Michigan to 36 percent shooting, 26.7 percent from deep range (4-of-15). Hallie Thome, a 6-5 junior, had 19 points and six rebounds, but Nicole Munger — who averaged 10 points and was shooting 43.5 percent from 3-point range — was held scoreless (0-for-8, 0-for-6).
Still, Michigan had the chance to pull even in the final minute. The Wolverines battled back from a 14-point second-half deficit to close within 64-61 on Flaherty’s 3-pointer with 1:30 left.
After the Wolverines forced a stop, they called a timeout with 50 seconds left, but couldn’t score. In fact, they never got a shot off, getting a shot-clock violation for their final turnover.
“That’s been the problem, but we work on it every day,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said of turnovers, including 26 in a 63-56 loss at Rutgers earlier this month. “I think coming into the year we really knew that that might be something that could be a problem for us because we weren’t returning a point guard, but we have kind of at times handled it. Then, at different times when we get frazzled a little bit, when we get bumped, when it’s physical a little bit we have turned it over.
“It’s definitely a work in progress and I think part of it is not really having that true point guard. Katelynn (Flaherty) has done a tremendous job for us filling that role, but now we’re looking at Katelynn to distribute, to score, to do a little bit of everything so it’s important that somebody else relieves some of the pressure for her which I think Deja (Church) is doing and is going to improve on, but she’s not completely there yet.”
Barnes Arico said the Wolverines were hesitant on the possession with 50 seconds left with players passing up shots, forcing the shot-clock violation. She pointed out that it hurt when 6-1 freshman forward Hailey Brown, one of the team’s top 3-point shooters, had to be helped off the court with four minutes left due to a possible knee injury.
Michigan will play at Minnesota on Wednesday with the fourth and final bye for the Big Ten tourney at stake.