Moments after falling to North Carolina 62-53 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament — the program’s fourth second-round exit in five years — Klarissa Bell and Annalise Pickrel sat in the locker room with their heads down, opposite from the rest of the team.
F or everyone else, it was the end of the season. For Bell and Pickrel, co-captains and the lone seniors on the squad, it was the end of a journey.
With a stout defense, potent offense and experienced roster, it seemed as though this year’s women’s basketball team was ready for a Sweet Sixteen appearance. Yet they fell just short, and Bell and Pickrel will graduate having never advanced to the third round of the NCAA Tournament.
“I honestly don’t know if it’s hit me yet, I think tomorrow it’ll probably hit at some point,” Bell said in the locker room.
Bell and Pickrel’s final season was a lot of things — a season of progress, a season of transition, even a season of setback.
The Spartans overcame a shaky start to field the best defense in the Big Ten. Despite losing junior guard Kiana Johnson to suspension in early February, MSU stayed afloat mostly as a result of Bell moving to point guard, which head coach Suzy Merchant called an unfortunate development for the veteran.
“It’s unfortunate ... because she’s not a point guard in any way, shape or form,” Merchant said. “Never played it, didn’t recruit her to be a point guard. She went three-and-a half years never doing it.”
Merchant added that Bell probably shouldn’t have been playing this season because of stress reactions in both shins, which didn’t improve as the season progressed.
MSU took off once they bought into the defensive side of the ball, something they struggled with early on. Pickrel credits Bell and Merchant with that development, although Pickrel was no slouch defensively herself.
“Once Klarissa started getting her defensive game on, everyone else started to follow,” Pickrel said. “But yeah, I would say I tried to be the vocal leader and I tried to be as much as the glue as I could. But I think it started with Klarissa.”
Despite the exit, Bell and Pickrel both expressed satisfaction Tuesday night after the loss. The Spartans certainly have reasons to be pleased with the season, earning a share of the Big Ten title and learning to adjust as freshmen Aerial Powers and Tori Jankoska established themselves as starters.
It might not have been the ideal end, but amidst the controversy of their final year, the seniors proved their character.
“I’m really proud of everybody individually,” Pickrel said. “A lot of our young players were huge for us this year. They grew so much and were ready to learn, ready to listen.
“Everybody towards the end of the season, everyone came together really well.”