Before to the game at Illinois on Jan. 13, MSU women’s basketball coach Suzy Merchant held a meeting with her three primary guards: senior Jasmine Thomas, junior Klarissa Bell and sophomore Kiana Johnson to break down extra game film.
Fresh off the Spartans’ worst loss of the season to Penn State, the sixth-year coach implored the trio to be more aggressive as MSU’s offense has struggled to keep pace with its elite defense for much of the season.
In the four games since the Illinois contest, Bell and Johnson have responded with vigor, notching career-highs of 25 and 22 points, respectively, with Thomas also elevating her productivity significantly. Johnson or Bell have led the Spartans in scoring during that stretch, with the 5-foot-11 Bell being the leading rebounder in two games.
“Aggressiveness is what brings offense, I guess,” Johnson said Sunday after the loss to Purdue. “You’ve got to score the ball — players score, not plays. I’m just trying to do whatever my team needs me to do.”
Bell leads MSU by averaging 12.1 points per game while Johnson — inserted into the starting lineup for the first time this season against Purdue — is second at 11.2 points a game. Thomas averages 8.7 points and leads the Spartans in assists.
“We’re doing a better job of getting in the paint,” Merchant said when asked to assess the guard play.
“That’s the one thing that we really worked on with those three in particular — staying aggressive. And certainly I think that comes from trying to get yourself to the free throw line or create opportunities for other people. I think those are the three that naturally will do it.”
With the guards stepping up their play as of late, Merchant’s concern now is them staying consistent. Just as Bell appeared to be hitting her stride from an offensive standpoint, she fell into a slump the past two games going a combined 4-for-20 shooting with eight total points.
“(Bell) was really playing well … and all of a sudden it was — I don’t know,” Merchant said. “I don’t know if somebody out there said something to her. So if anybody’s out there that said something to her, take it back, because it’s affected her.”
Merchant praised Thomas’ ability to drive to the bucket and her pull-up jump shot but yearns for more offensive efficiency from the senior.
All season Merchant has talked about how MSU lacks a designated superstar or go-to player — which at times has helped the Spartans as much as it has hurt them. She acknowledged that role could be filled by Bell, Johnson or somebody else. Regardless of who it is, she desperately wants someone to take command of the team following back-to-back losses for the first time this season.
“The one thing that Kiana has that I feel like is different or unique is that she’s got swag — I guess?” Merchant said. “Confidence that is unwavering. She’s a winner, a champion in terms of how she thinks. Every night is her night, every shot is her shot, you know. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t make mistakes or screw up or miss shots, but she never shies away from the expectation that she puts on herself.”