No. 6 Wolverines close in on Big Ten title with 62-51 win over rival Spartans

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — It was Senior Night for the Michigan women’s basketball team, and perhaps no senior has meant more to this program than Naz Hillmon.

Hillmon, in her final regular-season home game, scored a game-high 28 points leading the Wolverines to 62-51 win over rival Michigan State before 5,460 at Crisler Center on Thursday night. In the final seconds, an "MVP!" chant serenaded Hillmon, and after the game she stood on the court, waved to the fans and gave them a hand heart to show her appreciation.

The No. 6-ranked Wolverines, now 21-4 overall, 12-3 Big Ten are one win from winning the outright Big Ten regular-season title. They play at Iowa on Sunday.

"Especially for the first one in Michigan women's basketball history, yeah, we definitely want all of it," Hillmon said after the game of winning the title outright.

Senior Nia Clouden led Michigan State with 22 points, and DeeDee Hagemann added 13.

Michigan forward Naz Hillmon (00) shoots against Michigan State center Brooklyn Rewers (23) during the first half.

Hillmon drew an enormous ovation when she was presented as the last of Michigan’s four seniors honored before the game. This was also the final home regular-season game for Amy Dilk, Emily Kiser and Danielle Rauch.

Hillmon, the Big Ten’s Player of the Year last year, has helped lead this distinguished group of seniors which has taken the program to new heights, including an NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 appearance last year.

It was an important win for the Wolverines on a number of levels, including preserving their undefeated streak at home this season. They also wanted to keep themselves in contention for the Big Ten title ahead of next week’s conference tournament in Indianapolis and a potential double-bye.

"Since our freshman year, the Big Ten championship has been the goal, and we had a lot of people that came before us that really wanted it and really paved the way for us," Rauch, a co-captain with Hillmon, said. "Having the group we have this year and really putting it all together, it was important to us, and it's always been important to us.

"So now to see that come into reality, we just want to checking off boxes, and we're definitely not done yet."

To move toward checking off that Big Ten title box, Michigan had to get past MIchigan State, and the Wolverines were motivated in part by wanting to deliver some payback. Two weeks ago, Michigan State upset the Wolverines, 63-57. The Spartans are now 14-13, 8-8 and finish the season Sunday at home against Ohio State.

The Wolverines, playing their sixth game without second-leading scorer Leigha Brown (14.8 points) injured late in the Indiana game Jan. 31, trailed by as many as nine in the first quarter after the Spartans came out hot, while the Wolverines were cold from the field -- they were 2-of-11 (18.2 percent) from the field with less than three minutes left in the first quarter. Strong free throw shooting pulled Michigan to within 14-10 at the end of the first.

Michigan came out strong in the second powered by Hillmon who made the Wolverines’ first three baskets to pull them to within two of the Spartans.

The Wolverines took their first lead of the game, 28-26, on a 3-pointer by Maddie Nolan. Michigan State regained the lead on a layup by Hagemann, and Michigan took it back on a layup by Kiser. But Clouden made two free throws in the final seconds of the half to tie the game, 32-32.

Michigan led 48-44 after the third and a 10-0 run at the start of the fourth put the game out of reach.

"I think we put up a really good fight," said Clouden, who tweaked an ankle sprain in the first half and then dealt with leg cramping late in the game. "We were playing good defense, we were scoring with them and then the fourth quarter came and our offense kind of went dry. It probably had a little to do with fatigue and Michigan. They were playing really well. The ball just didn't bounce our way."

While this was the last regular-season game, if the Wolverines are a top-16 seed, they will host first- and second-round NCAA Tournament games at the Crisler Center. With that in the back of their minds, the Michigan seniors said they were not as emotional at "Senior Night".

"We were talking about how emotional we were going to be, but in the back of our minds we knew if we continue to win, we're going to put ourselves in a position to host," Rauch said. "We knew we were going to come back to Crisler. This wasn't the last one."

achengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @chengelis