The MSU women’s hoops team really needed Monday’s victory over Michigan.
It needed it to maintain dominance over the Spartans’ arch rival.
It needed it for any of the 8,000-plus fans that packed Breslin Center wearing pink in support of cancer awareness — including some survivors.
Most importantly, MSU needed its 61st win against the Wolverines to stay in the hunt for the Big Ten title. The Spartans began Monday in a pack of five teams deadlocked with matching 5-3 conference records, looking up at No. 8 Penn State and No. 13 Purdue, which shared the top spot with one Big Ten loss apiece.
By Monday night, MSU was tied for third place with Illinois and Nebraska. Penn State knocked off Purdue at home to maintain sole control of first place while the Boilermakers slipped to second.
“Huge — it was just big,” junior guard Klarissa Bell said.
“They’re a good team, I feel like they’re going to go out and they’re going to beat people. We’re going to beat people, so I feel like it’s good for this Big Ten race or whatever. It’s just an exciting win: It’s Michigan versus Michigan State. I mean, how much more exciting does it get?”
Head coach Suzy Merchant didn’t want to overstate the importance of the 15-point win, shrugging off suggestions of a dominant effort. But the sixth-year coach had to be pleased with her team’s showing after a lackluster win at middling Northwestern to end a two-game losing streak.
“I’m happy with a one-point victory as long as we’re winning it,” she said. “I mean this league is too tough. Just cause you’re at home doesn’t mean you’re going to win. … It’s extremely competitive with very good players, and every coach on the sideline knows what they’re doing and can coach.”
The way MSU won was true to its recipe the entire season — a balanced scoring attack coupled with a nationally elite defense.
Four of the five Spartan starters scored nine points, while sophomore center Jasmine Hines had eight. Becca Mills, a sophomore forward, led MSU with 12 points off the bench.
Eighth in the nation in points allowed prior to the game, the Spartan defense held Michigan to 46 points and just 17-of-53 shooting from the floor.
“It was huge, but every game is going to be huge,” sophomore guard Kiana Johnson said. “We’ve just got to take it one game at a time.”
MSU hopes to use the Michigan game as a launching point with the rest of the week to prepare for a rematch with Penn State on Sunday. The Nittany Lions handed MSU its worst loss of the season on Jan. 6, downing the Spartans, 76-55.
If MSU can ride the momentum of the rivalry win to a victory in State College, Pa., it keeps MSU’s championship hopes realistic, although the Spartans would require at least one other Big Ten team to beat Penn State.
A loss likely ends their four-year streak of finishing second or better in the conference.
Penn State isn’t the unstoppable force it looked like early in the conference season after falling on the road to Wisconsin. The Badgers are 2-7 in Big Ten play and previously lost to Penn State by 44 points.
Should MSU win Sunday, remaining games at Michigan and Purdue this month become a lot more interesting as the Big Ten race enters the home stretch.
For now, the Spartans have bought themselves at least one more week to stay with the pack in a highly-competitive race.
“We’ve got a tough one coming up with Penn State, you know, and obviously they were very aggressive against us here,” Merchant said. “So, it’ll be a challenge on the road there.”