Spartans remain unbeaten in Big Ten with freshmen stars
Freshman guard Kiana Johnson talks to her Michigan State teammates during a timeout last Wednesday night at Breslin Center. The Spartans defeated the Wolverines 60-55. Aaron Snyder/The State News
Although the MSU women’s basketball team (11-5, 3-0) entered this season with a conference title to defend, many didn’t consider this year’s team to be a contender.
The Spartans lost three seniors — who played major minutes — to graduation, including conference Player of the Year Kalisha Keane.
But after a week that saw MSU go on the road to beat Penn State and knock off Michigan, the Spartans are firmly in the conference title mix as one of three Big Ten teams without a loss.
It’s the second consecutive season MSU has started 3-0 in conference play and only the sixth time in school history.
Although head coach Suzy Merchant said it’s too early to think about where her team will finish, she is happy with the improvement she has seen in her team.
“Does it say something? I don’t know,” she said. “It’s awful early to be predicting or worrying about where we’re going to end up in the race. What I did like is I thought our kids came together, and I thought we fought really, really hard at both ends of the floor.”
Pointing the way
A big part MSU’s strong start has been the play of freshman point guard Kiana Johnson, whose high basketball IQ and defensive intensity have helped her make plays as a freshman.
Johnson scored a career-high 18 points against Penn State, including eight of MSU’s final 10 points, after the Spartans’ lead was cut to four with just under three minutes to go in the game.
In the past eight games, MSU has outscored its opponents by 75 points when Johnson is on the floor but has been outscored by 13 points when she’s on the bench.
“As a freshman point guard, she kind of plays it beyond her years a little bit,” Merchant said. “She played in a really, really high-level high school program … so ever since she’s been little she’s played in big games.”
Rebounding from injury
Freshman forward Becca Mills had been making some strides in her first year as a Spartan, recently cracking the starting lineup and providing a big body with a soft touch around the rim.
Due to a knee injury suffered against Indiana, Mills missed the Spartans’ next game against Michigan, but was able to return to game action against Penn State on Saturday, and Merchant said the knee didn’t experience any swelling after the game.
“Obviously we started the (Big Ten) season at Indiana, and she went out six minutes into that game, so basically for two games we didn’t have Becca Mills,” she said. “We really needed her against Penn State, I thought she did a great job.”