With the final chapter written on the 2012-13 MSU women’s basketball season Monday night in College Park, Md., head coach Suzy Merchant finally admitted it.
She finally spoke on the one thing that she refused to believe — or at least state publicly — the entire season: the short-handed Spartanswere affected by fatigue and a lack of depth throughout the year.
“We were just whipped,” she said following the season-ending 74-49 loss to Maryland. “Mentally, we were tired and just not the attacking team we’ve been. That part was disappointing. We were better than what we showed tonight.”
At its best this season, MSU could rely on an eight-player rotation — and that was rare. Merchant was forced to play her starters close to 40 minutes a game in early-season games that should have been blowouts featuring walk-on players by the middle of the second half.
Sophomore center Madison Williams and freshman guard Aerial Powers had their seasons end with injuries before they even began, and freshman guard Branndais Agee joined them five games into the year. Merchant since has said all three would have started or competed for meaningful minutes.
Throw in the fact that sophomore guard Kiana Johnson, one of MSU’s most dynamic players who got starting experience as a freshman, and redshirt freshman forward Akyah Taylor were suspended for the first nine games of the season, and you begin to understand why the starters had to play nearly whistle to whistle against sub-par competition in the early goings.
The Spartans never submitted to their circumstances either, which is commendable and worthy of respect. Until Monday night, Merchant wouldn’t entertain the notion that, perhaps, MSU simply was gassed after slamming the pedal to the metal from day one — neither would the players.
“I mean to see where this group is at is inspiring,” said a reflective, red-eyed Merchant.
“That’s why I’m emotional for this group because I’m just so proud of them. I really am. I’m disappointed about how it ended for this group because we’re a better team than we showed. … I wish it had ended better.”
However unfavorable the situation seemed at times this season, the Spartans made the best of it by far exceeding any expectations placed on them. This team fought, scratched and clawed its way to 25 wins and played for the Big Ten Tournament championship, as well as a trip to the Sweet 16.
The Spartans fell short of their ultimate goal of advancing beyond last weekend, but what they did take away from a season chock-full of lessons will be invaluable heading into next year.
Now that 2012-13 is in the books, it’d be wise for the returning players to start buying into the glass half-full philosophy for next season’s squad.
Yes, it will have to replace the clutch performances of guard Jasmine Thomas and the leadership of forward Courtney Schiffauer as departing seniors, there’s no question.
The rash of injuries and suspensions forced some Spartans into the fray. Role players became starters and suddenly everyone had much more on their plate than expected.
“It’d be interesting to see, wouldn’t it? It’d be fun. I would take it,” Merchant said on Sunday when asked about her team’s potential had it been at full strength this season.
There were seemingly new experiences for the Spartans at every turn — experiences that should bode well for them in 2013-14 with Agee, Williams and Powers back in the picture along with 2013 Miss Basketball winner Tori Jankoska.
The Spartans had the talent this season to do special things — and they did have great achievements. Next year the talent still will be there. Combine that with a now-seasoned core group of players and it could be a recipe for a wildly successful season.
With the pain of the most lopsided loss of the season still fresh, sophomore forward Becca Mills acknowledged that and looked forward briefly.
“Next year when we get them back in the mix, we will be even stronger,” she said of the injured trio. “The people who played through it this year are tougher and we know what we have to do to win games down the stretch. It will help us for next year.”
Stephen Brooks is a women’s basketball beat writer for The State News. He can be reach at email@example.com.