On Sunday the MSU women’s basketball team will hit the road for the first time in the young Big Ten season to take on a high-scoring Illinois squad.
In a strength versus strength matchup, the defensive-minded Spartans (13-2 overall, 1-1 Big Ten), who allow 45.6 points per game, will be tested by the Illini offense that averages 72.7 points per contest led by star forward Karisma Penn.
Four Illinois (9-6, 2-1) starters average 13 points or more, headlined by Penn’s 20-points and 10-plus rebounds per contest. By contrast MSU’s leading scorer, junior guard Klarissa Bell, averages 11.9 points per game.
“I would like to say we have a defensive presence about us,” head coach Suzy Merchant said. “But right now our offense has got to get going. We can’t put that much pressure on our defense night-in and night-out, we’ve got to be able to score the ball a little bit too.”
MSU boasts the No.1 scoring defense in the conference, while Illinois’ scoring offense is two points away from Big Ten-leading Penn State’s 74.4 per game.
When the Spartans take the floor Sunday it’ll be on a full week’s rest after a home loss to Penn State on Jan. 6. The long delay allowed MSU extra time to prepare for an Illinois team that allows the most points in the conference, with an emphasis this week on scoring in the paint, Bell said.
“It’s going to be challenging,” she said. “They’re a group of athletic, long, fast girls. It’s going to be different, I’m not sure if we’ve seen a team like them yet.”
Merchant said she held the first full-go practices this week since Dec. 13 when freshman guard Branndais Agee tore her anterior cruciate ligament to help foster better offensive execution, she said
“Ever since (Agee’s injury) we just walk through stuff,” Merchant said. “But … after Penn State and I noticed our offense dropping with all the walkthroughs in terms of our point production and execution, we’ve got to do live stuff.”
The Spartans’ bench has been limited all season due to injuries and suspensions, and was recently shortened further, to seven players, with redshirt freshman forward Akyah Taylor out with an undisclosed ailment.
While MSU’s bench depth gets worse, Illinois’ has been recently bolstered by the return of guard Adrienne GodBold the last four games. The senior guard, who was previously ineligible, is averaging 16.3 points per game and 6.8 rebounds since her return.
“They’re 4-1 with her, and if I could insert 16 points and 9 rebounds into my offense, I’d be feeling pretty good,” Merchant said. “And I’m sure that there will be some results from that.”
The Illini are playing well as of late, knocking off No. 6 Georgia, Ohio State and losing to No. 14 Purdue by one point in overtime.
Sophomore guard Kiana Johnson said limiting transition buckets and matching up with Illinois’ athleticism will be critical against the Illini’s four-guard set.
“We know going to Illinois it’s going to be a tough environment, so we’re just preparing for that as well. We’re preparing for their physical play,” Johnson said.
The game will be aired on Big Ten Network with tip-off is scheduled for 4 p.m. eastern.