Stretching nearly 100 total matchups, the Michigan and Michigan State women’s basketball rivalry always brings out the best in both teams.
The Wolverines prevailed in Ann Arbor despite a career day from Nia Clouden, but the atmosphere of this game was unlike any other with the pandemic changing all the mainstays of a typical rivalry game.
With no fans and the buzz of an arena on gameday, things felt a lot different.
“You always feel the rivalry, but it definitely did not feel like normal,” Michigan State Head Coach Suzy Merchant said. “We usually have three busloads of Spartan fans screaming and yelling and it's pretty live in there. Then when they come to our place, they can get pretty crazy there too.”
Clouden, despite the different atmosphere, rose to the occasion, scoring a career-high 34 points and hauling in eight rebounds. For her, that rivalry competitiveness was still there.
"I think the energy was still really high and still felt like a rivalry,” Clouden said. "The fans were the only thing missing so if they were there that probably would have added a whole other dimension, but it was still really competitive, it felt like a rivalry game.”
For Michigan, this game meant a lot after being snubbed from the NCAA Tournament committee’s Top-16 teams despite being ranked No. 11 by the AP Top 25. Michigan forward Naz Hillmon came up huge for her squad as well, scoring 31 as she and Clouden brought the type of back and forth star power game that makes rivalries so great.
“It’s interesting with no fans because usually, this place would be going crazy,” Hillmon said. “In this day and age, you have to muster up your own energy and I love that we have to find it within ourselves to know that we’re in a rivalry. We talked about it as soon as we knew we were going to be able to play Michigan State and we know the importance of it, we want to own the state of Michigan.”
The energy will always be there from both squads in a matchup as contentious as this one is, and with Michigan securing their third straight win over the Spartans, things are becoming as competitive as ever.
“We knew that Michigan State was going to come in and try to knock us off on our home court, but we just wanted to play with a chip on our shoulder,” Michigan guard Leigha Brown said. “The energy the past couple of days at practice has been really good, you could just tell it was a rivalry game so to be able to come out on top of Michigan State was huge.”
Despite Michigan State leading the series by a wide margin of 72-22, the Wolverines are on the upswing with three straight wins and being ranked nationally at the moment, something that Coach Merchant feels is good for the state of Michigan and women’s basketball.
“It's a great state for women's basketball,” Merchant said. “They've done a good job, we've done a good job of promoting that atmosphere. Those are the games that kids want to play and it definitely felt weird not to have so many fans screaming and yelling at you while the game was going on.”
With the state of Michigan having such a solid recruiting base, the recruiting battles between the two squads can be fierce. With three straight victories, Michigan Head Coach Kim Barnes Arico thinks the tides are beginning to turn.
“When I first got to the University of Michigan, Michigan State was the team in our state,” Arico said. “They were the team nationally, they had great tradition, they had great success, they had been to the Final Four. That was always something when I first got here, understanding that rivalry and understanding how important it was to be able to beat them and beat them consistently because it really made a difference with the recruits in the state and it just made a difference nationally, but it made a difference in Michigan. It’s nice for us to be turning that around a bit.”
Regardless of where it’s played, how it’s played and what players take the court, the bad blood will always be there in this rivalry.
“I think everybody likes a good rival, doesn't matter what sport it is, Michigan-Michigan State going back in time, it's always going to be that way,” Merchant said. “In this state you grew up one or the other, there's not both. I grew up in Traverse City and everybody there was Spartans. I had two brothers that went to Michigan State, one playing baseball there."
“It's a special place in our family, so I think you either have the line of the Wolverine in your line or you have the line if you’re Spartan Nation, so where I'm from that was kind of all I knew.”
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