West Lafayette, Ind. – Defense and pottery.
That’s what the MSU women’s basketball team does for fun.
In preparation for a rematch with No. 25 Purdue on Thursday night, head coach Suzy Merchant called for a day of rest and relaxation earlier this week that included music, pizza and painting pottery. It didn’t include any stops at Breslin Center, cell phones or talk about basketball.
“(Merchant) watched a lot of film and she thought that what we were missing was just our will, basically,” junior guard Klarissa Bell said.
“Everybody seemed like they were physically tired or mentally tired and that was corresponding to our games, and so she basically just took a day off for us and we went and made pottery, which was awesome.”
The Spartans parlayed that day off into a 68-61 win over the Boilermakers at Mackey Arena for MSU’s first win over a ranked opponent this season. Perhaps more importantly, although Merchant insists the topic doesn’t cross her mind, the win keeps MSU (21-7 overall, 9-6 Big Ten) alive for a top-four finish in the Big Ten and subsequent first-round bye in the conference tournament.
Merchant’s idea for a creative escape from the hardwood resulted in one of the most tenacious defensive efforts of the season for MSU – which says a lot considering the Spartans are in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense.
MSU showed its muscle toward the conclusion of each half to claim the critical road win, holding Purdue (20-8, 9-6) scoreless for the final 3:20 of the first half and the last 4:09 of the second.
The Spartans forced 12 turnovers in the first 20 minutes and turned them into 16 points.
“I said ‘Well, let’s just go down there and play,’” Merchant said. “You know, play our game, let’s get our defense back, and if our defense comes back, anything can happen. Let’s relax a little bit and enjoy the journey, and go down there with a freed up mind and a big heart.”
Junior forward Annalise Pickrel had a game-high 18 points — including 4-for-7 from behind the arc — while guards Jasmine Thomas, a senior, and junior Klarissa Bell each chipped in 17 points. The trio accounted for more than 76 percent of MSU’s points.
“Our team, what’s fun to us is defense — it has to be,” Pickrel said with a laugh as she turned to Merchant.
“It is fun, so this game especially when our emphasis was just on defense and what we had to do, when we were getting steals and stuff in the first half, it was a lot of fun.”
After heading into halftime with its largest lead of the game, 37-26, MSU countered Purdue’s runs and noise swells from a crowd of 8,046 throughout the final 20 minutes.
The Boilermakers narrowed the Spartans’ lead to three points or less on five different occasions, but never got closer than a one-point deficit.
A pair of free throws from Purdue’s Courtney Moses left MSU up 63-61 with 4:09, and those would be the last points the Boilermakers scored.
Thomas led the final run for MSU with a layup followed by two free throws to put the Spartans up by six. The Boilermakers’ Drey Mingo missed a 3-pointer with 33 seconds left, and after being fouled on the rebound, Bell split a pair from the foul line for the final margin.
“I think (defense is) what we built our identity on in the first place,” Thomas said. “Just to get back to that and feel more like ourselves, I think, is the most important feeling we had tonight. And I think everybody out on the floor made that effort to get the stops when we needed it.”