For the second week in a row, the MSU women’s basketball team will take the Breslin Center floor one day following a highly-anticipated men’s matchup with a winning streak against a conference foe on the line.
The Spartans (19-6 overall, 7-5 Big Ten) will look to earn their 19th consecutive win against Northwestern (12-13, 4-8) at 7 p.m.
MSU broke its 12-game win streak against rival Michigan in a one-point loss Sunday in Ann Arbor, but with four games remaining in the regular season, head coach Suzy Merchant is hoping for a quick rebound and strong finish from her team.
“In some ways, we’ve probably over achieved in some people’s standards, but yeah there’s four games to go and we have a lot that we can accomplish,” Merchant said. “Certainly we’re playing for a lot of different things, and what kind of team do we want to be? We’ll see.”
The Wildcats are 2-2 since MSU came from behind to beat them, 67-62, in Evanston, Ill., on Jan. 31 behind junior forward Annalise Pickrel’s career-high 21 points. Northwestern ranks in the Big Ten’s bottom four in scoring offense, scoring defense, rebounding margin and turnover margin.
Merchant said the Wildcats are playing well as of late and still pose a threat to MSU with a style of play that includes zone defenses and four of the top-30 scorers in the conference.
Excluding a trip to No. 22 Purdue, the Spartans’ final four games are against teams in the bottom half of the Big Ten standings.
“We’re at that point right now where there’s four to go — we have two at home, two on the road,” Merchant said.
“Challenging games, tough games, but games I feel like if we compete and fight and have focus and everybody does their job, certainly opportunities lie ahead in a positive way for us. But I want to see some players get mentally and physically tough and have more of a determined attitude.”
On Sunday against U-M, Merchant tweaked the starting lineup for the second time this season by swapping sophomore center Jasmine Hines — who started the previous five games — for Pickrel, who started the first 19 games of the year.
Merchant said the switch was situational as Pickrel provided the necessary athleticism to defend against the Wolverines on the perimeter, but wasn’t sure Monday what lineup she would use in the rematch with the Wildcats.
“I don’t know if I’ll change the starting lineup or not, but if I did I think Becca’s probably the one that has been playing very, very well the last few games,” she said.
“That’s what I’m trying to do is put the team out there that’s going to fight and compete the hardest — I don’t care what the combination is at this point.”
Think it out
Merchant specifically has been frustrated with Hines’ performances in recent weeks, which also likely played a part in her reclaiming a role off the bench. She wants to see more determination and competitiveness from the center who has played a total of 14 minutes and scored only four points in the past two games.
Both Mills and Hines were plagued by foul trouble in the first contest against Northwestern, which was nearly detrimental as the pair essentially splits minutes with each other as the Spartans’ only two true post threats.
“Sometimes (Hines) just is sort of out there and she needs to elevate her game a lot defensively and offensively,” Merchant said. “We’ve had a lot of conversations and I think she tends to look around and wait for somebody else. I just want her to be who she is, but I think it starts between her ears and I’ve always said that. The game is more mental than physical and she has all the physical skill set and talent … right now, she sometimes can be her own worst enemy. So I want to see what she’s made of.”