Monday, June 17, 2024

MSU will need to be tough to win conference

Joe Terry

Good old-fashioned grit.

That’s how the MSU women’s basketball team has made its way to the top of the Big Ten standings the last month.

The Spartans have been on a tear of recent, winning nine of their last 10 games to move into first place, and they’ve been winning with toughness.

It starts even before the opening tip. The team is the biggest in the Big Ten and it shows in the Spartans’ style of play. With five players that are at least 6-foot-1 on the court, the team’s goal every trip down the floor seems to be to get the ball in the post and back down the opponent until they quit.

That’s exactly what happened in Thursday’s 71-65 overtime victory over Indiana. The Hoosiers could have easily won the game. They were up two with 15 seconds on the clock and had hit 22 of 24 free throws in the game, including all 14 they took in the second half.

Indiana’s only problem was it didn’t have the size to compete with the Spartans. Two Hoosiers starters, including Whitney Thomas, the All-Big Ten forward that had the tough assignment of guarding junior forwards Aisha Jefferson and Lykendra Johnson, had fouled out by the extra session. Amber Jackson, the Hoosier guarding junior center Allyssa DeHaan, had three fouls, leaving Indiana nearly powerless to stop MSU’s offensive attack.

The Spartans took advantage, outscoring Indiana 14-8 in overtime, a measure that was made closer by two desperation threes late by the Hoosiers. Indiana was so tired that Hoosiers guard Jamie Braun undershot a free throw.

In the Jan. 1 overtime game against Purdue, the Spartans forced Purdue into shooting 1-for-10 in the extra session, as MSU again walked away victorious 68-62.

And the Spartans don’t just wear opponents down, they make them change their game plan completely.

In the Jan. 25 game against Wisconsin, the Badgers didn’t start point guard Rae Lin D’Alie because of her height. The 5-foot-3 D’Alie only played 15 minutes in the game, nowhere near the 32 minutes she averages on the season.

The move took Wisconsin out of its offense and allowed MSU to grab an easy win at home.

And the toughness isn’t all physical. The Spartans are unflappable in the last five minutes of games, a tribute to the team’s mental toughness.

Head coach Suzy Merchant stresses execution and focusing on the next play, and it seems that in her second year in control of the program it is starting to take hold. In fact, the team is 6-2 on the road in conference this season, which ties a school record for the most wins in conference.

With only four games left in the regular season, the Spartans will need to tap into that toughness if they want to hang a banner in the rafters.

Though three of the four games are at home, MSU has probably the toughest stretch of the four teams still in consideration for the Big Ten title. MSU still has to play in-state rival Michigan and championship contenders Minnesota and Purdue. Ohio State, who shares the Big Ten lead with MSU, has home games against Wisconsin and Penn State, teams that are floating near the bottom of the standings.

To win the championship, the Spartans will have to hone that focus and tough out the last four games. If there’s any team that can do it, it’s this one.

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