On Sunday night, the No. 19 women's basketball team clinched a share of the 2014 Big Ten championship with a decisive 76-56 victory over Indiana. It's the team's second Big Ten championship of this decade, with the previous championship coming in 2011.
After the game, head coach Suzy Merchant and players expressed joy - and a bit of relief - with the outcome. Earlier in the year, the Spartans (21-8 overall, 13-3 Big Ten) were only a game over .500 and experiencing turbulence concerning player roles and chemistry.
On Dec. 1, MSU lost its second home game of the season to IPFW, 81-76. Almost three weeks later on Dec. 19, the team dropped its fourth game in five tries, failing to capitalize on a 15-point first half lead en route to falling to Oklahoma State in the first game of the Puerto Rico Classic, 63-57.
The loss, which reduced the Spartans to a 6-5 overall record at that point, was the result of a culmination of problems - disjointed styles of play between freshmen Aerial Powers and Tori Jankoska, who enjoyed a more freewheeling style of play as opposed to running structured offensive sets, and the veterans of the team. A lack of defensive intensity also was a problem.
"There was times where I had some doubts," Merchant said of where she thought her team would end up come March.
She described the upset to IPFW as a key loss. "We didn't defend anybody, so it took them a while to buy in. A really key loss kinda set us in a place where we decided to be better as a group, and we had to work at it too."
According to senior co-captain Annalise Pickrel, the loss against Oklahoma State was the "breaking point," and the team had to take action if they wanted their fortunes to change.
Finding the gray
After the Oklahoma State loss, the team had a meeting, the first of many, where the team addressed its problems, such as meshing the styles of the younger and older players, and making sure players were being held accountable for their mistakes.
"Every week, we had a meeting about that," Pickrel said. "It was about the same thing and at that time we didn't know how to do it yet. Eventually we figured it out through communication and like I said, putting in a little bit. The freshmen had to give up a little bit and we had to put in a little more."
Powers and Jankoska, who led the team in scoring during the regular season, were not initially on the same page as their older, more experienced teammates as far as approaching the game.
"They're used to playing in a system where it's black and white," Jankoska said. "You run the play, you go through the play and if you don't score off it, you move to the next thing. We have me, Aerial, Branndais (Agee) and some of the juniors, and if we see an opening during a play, we're just going to take it."
Through a series of meetings, the team eventually found a medium between the contrasting styles of play and established an identity. Part of that medium was the seniors realizing perhaps the Spartans would be better off allowing the freshmen to handle the scoring duties.
"I wasn't mad about it at all, I just knew it was something our team needed," said senior co-captain Klarissa Bell. "I think it's a maturity thing."
It was a test of leadership for Bell and Pickrel, but once Jankoska and Powers "gave up a bit" and bought into the offensive system, the team took off on both sides of the ball.
"This was a challenge - meshing young and old, play-making grey zone kids with more scripted, more deliberate offensive kids, meshing them, getting them to defend," Merchant said. "To their credit, they came together as a group."
Back to basics
Merchant doesn't consider herself a fan of tough love, but she realized early that perhaps a more heavy-handed approach was what her team needed.
A defensive coach, Merchant didn't see the intensity that she desired on that end of the court. The coaching staff began charting errors committed by players in practice and during games in an effort to hold players accountable for their defensive lapses.
"This is a team that works better and plays better when you push the buttons," Merchant said. "You can't do it all the time, but I think they're a team that really needed to grind it out and you needed to get into some of them individually, you don't always have to do it collectively."
Merchant saw improvement after the loss to IPFW, citing the next game against Florida State as a step forward. Despite losing 60-58, Merchant said holding Florida State to 60 points was a sign of improvement.
The Spartans progressed into a defensive menace once Big Ten play began, leading the conference in scoring defense (62.3), field goal percentage defense (38.6 percent) and 3-point field goal percentage (28.3 percent).
"Coach got harder on us during practice," Powers said. "It just made us come together. It was the coaches against the players, and we had to come together in order to have good practices. So we just worked as a team."
With much of the adversity behind them, the 2014 Big Ten Champs look forward to the Big Ten Tournament.
Becoming Big Ten champs wasn't an easy journey for the Spartans, but there is optimism that the team can improve on last year's 64-47 loss to Purdue in the championship game.
"It's hard to get there, it's really hard to get to the championship in the Big Ten," Pickrel said. "I think what we have now is we have that mental edge now, that a lot of teams lose at the end of the season because they're so exhausted. We have to learn how to overcome that."
Compared to last year, this year's squad is deeper, more potent on offense, and healthier. But games aren't won on paper, and the Spartans will have to show that the improvement they made this season isn't for naught.
"It's just been a long, hard road, but it's obviously all worked out," Merchant said. "It was a tough, challenging year, but when we started to click, I felt like we could do some really good things."