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'The tide has been turning': Women's basketball players, coaches discuss the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry

The Spartans are winless against the Wolverines in the regular season for the first time since 2015.

February 24, 2020
Senior guard Taryn McCutcheon (4) takes a shot during a basketball game against Michigan on Feb. 23, 2020.
Senior guard Taryn McCutcheon (4) takes a shot during a basketball game against Michigan on Feb. 23, 2020. —
Photo by Alyte Katilius | The State News

As sophomore guard Amy Dilk dribbled the clock out in the final seconds of Michigan women's basketball's 65-57 win over Michigan State, history was made. The Wolverines' road victory marked their first sweep of the season series against the Spartans since the 2014-15 season.

Michigan State has only suffered four such sweeps in the 48-year history of the program with the first coming in 1990. After Sunday's loss, the Spartans are now 7-3 in their last 10 games against Michigan.

MSU coach Suzy Merchant, 23-6 against Michigan in her 13 years at MSU, said that the loss was "disappointing" and didn't try to downplay the importance of the rivalry.

“I’m from Traverse City, Michigan and I’m a Spartan,” Merchant said. “That’s not fun. We don’t do that often here.”

Michigan's rare series win has been fueled by the emergence of sophomore forward Naz Hillmon as a central player in the rivalry. Hillmon has averaged 22.5 points in her four games against the Spartans, including a 17-point first half performance on Sunday that contributed to Michigan's 15-point lead at the half.

Hillmon said that her team is always eager to play their in-state rivals no matter the location.

“We all look forward to it, whether it’s at (Crisler Center in Ann Arbor) or it’s here,” Hillmon said. “It’s just a great opportunity for everybody to look and advertise women’s basketball and see how competitive it can be under a big spotlight."

The Spartans have flat-out owned the Wolverines in the history of both programs, compiling an overall record of 72-20 against the Wolverines since the teams first played in 1973. Despite the rivalry, Michigan head coach Kim Barnes Arico said that studying Michigan State's success in the women's game played a key role in her development of the program.

“When I was first hired here, obviously being from the east coast and being in the Big East, I always followed Michigan State because they always had such rich tradition and had been such a great program," she said. "So I knew that that was going to be a measuring stick when I first got to Michigan and that’s kind of been our model, our team’s goal since I’ve been here."

Michigan State's current roster features seven players from the state of Michigan while Michigan has zero. Even after the win, Barnes said that in-state recruiting has always been a focus throughout her tenure.

“It’s always a recruiting battle in the state of Michigan and throughout the country, but we’ve managed to get a few (in-state recruits) lately and the tide has been turning," she said. " ... And it hasn't always been easy because the best kids in the state go to Michigan State and the best kids in the state sometimes leave the state. We had two kids sign in the 2020 class that are Michigan kids and that was really, really important for us."

Like Barnes, MSU sophomore Tory Ozment is not from Michigan. But even as a Georgia native, Ozment said that the rivalry is simple in its importance.

“It’s Michigan," Ozment said. "There’s nothing else to say. You gotta have a little more heart that night.”

Ozment mentioned her in-state rivalry of Georgia and Georgia Tech and said that "Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate" pales in comparison to Michigan and Michigan State's storied feud.

“When I came up here, it’s nothing," Ozment said. "It’s nothing like it. I mean, there’s a genuine hate for each other and just seeing the seniors like (Taryn McCutcheon) fight for it … it just kind of motivates you a little more. Seeing all the kids from Michigan just want it, that motivates me. So I kind of learned from them to just kind of hate (Michigan)."


McCutcheon is originally from Parkersburg, West Virginia but moved to East Lansing as a senior in high school after committing to play for the Spartans. With four years of immersion in the rivalry, she said that playing Michigan brings out a certain "mentality" for the team.

“It comes down to knowing that there is just another level," she said. "I think maybe sometimes we think we’re playing hard but there’s just another level of that. And it comes out when we play people like Michigan.”

With Sunday's defeat, McCutcheon is 6-3 against the Wolverines in her illustrious career at Michigan State. McCutcheon said she noticed a similar, must-win mindset to previous Spartan teams in Michigan's play on Sunday.

"Since I came here, it was like 'no, that just doesn't happen,'" she said. "We just don't lose to Michigan and I feel like they played like that today. I felt like Michigan was like, 'we're not losing.'"

With the 2019-20 season series officially in the books, Barnes said that the success of both programs transcends the rivalry.

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"I think it’s great for the state of Michigan to have two great basketball programs," Barnes said. "And for a long time, Michigan State was always ahead of us and I think this is just tremendous for the game. It’s tremendous for our university, it’s tremendous for our players."


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