There were two records on Suzy Merchant’s mind heading into Wednesday’s home matchup with Northwestern – one evoked nerves while the other evoked pride.
The first, the Wildcats’ losing record on the season, made the sixth-year MSU women’s basketball coach nervous because she knew the number wasn’t indicative of how good Northwestern was.
The second was the fruit of MSU’s 54-45 victory Wednesday night, which marked the Spartans’ 10th-straight season of 20 wins or more.
“Those are always important numbers and you know how important it is to get there,” Merchant said. “Hopefully, we continue it because we still have three games to go. But it is definitely a number we aim at for a lot of reasons.
“… I’m not happy with the way we played today, though. I feel like we got beat by 20 and didn’t play well, which is disappointing.”
Merchant’s concerns about the Wildcats heading into the contest were warranted, as the Spartans had to overcome a 10-point first half deficit and a poor shooting start to earn its 19th-straight win against the Wildcats in a game they couldn’t afford to drop.
With three games remaining in the regular season and positioning in the Big Ten up for grabs, a home loss to conference bottom-dweller Northwestern (12-14 overall, 4-9 Big Ten) could have proven detrimental.
Sophomore forward Becca Mills – who rejoined the starting lineup after coming off the bench the previous six games – had a game-high 15 points to lead the Spartans (20-6, 8-5).
But it was senior guard Jasmine Thomas who filled the stat sheet with 10 points, six rebounds, three steals and three blocks.
“Without Jasmine Thomas, I don’t know where this team would be,” Merchant said.
“We would not have won the game without her.”
At the media timeout with 7:20 to play in the first half, the Spartans were down 16-7 and shooting just 3-for-19 from the field.
Mills then broke a scoring drought of more than six minutes after the timeout with a pair of free throws that kick-started the MSU offense.
A 3-pointer from sophomore guard Kiana Johnson followed up by a three-point-play by Thomas tied the game at 24 with 2:20 to play in the first half. Mills then hit a 3-pointer to give MSU its first lead since the game’s opening minute.
“It’s definitely a different determination coming into these last few games, just the whole stretch,” said Thomas, a captain, who scored a career-high 21 points in a one-point loss to Michigan on Saturday.
“We got our 20th win tonight which is important, but we’re playing for more.”
After entering halftime with a two-point advantage, MSU pulled away from the Wildcats with a 16-2 run midway through the second half that included eight consecutive points from junior forward Annalise Pickrel and put the Spartans up 48-35 with 4:12 left to play. Pickrel missed her first eight shots of the night prior to the run.
From there, MSU never led by less than seven points, and four free throws from guards Kiana Johnson, a sophomore, and junior Klarissa Bell in the final 22 seconds ended any hopes of a Wildcat comeback.
“Even though their record doesn’t show it, they’ve hung with almost every team in the Big Ten – the best teams,” Mills said. “… We know they’re capable of it and that they could sneak up and beat anyone.”
As Thomas said, the 20th win is in the bag for the Spartans but they have more left on their plate by closing out the regular season with three games in seven days, two of which come on the road.
“Yeah it was an ugly win, but we have to win these four (final) games and we have one down,” Bell said.