The MSU women’s basketball team has been cool down the stretch all season long, seemingly shrugging off pressure in the last five minutes as just another fan yelling in the stands.
For example, in a home game against Wisconsin on Jan. 25, the Spartans watched as the Badgers found their stroke from behind the arc and pulled a 10-point lead to within two.
But without taking an extra breath, MSU just picked up the ball and locked down its defense, forcing three turnovers in the last minute and winning 59-50.
Believe it or not, it hasn’t only been at Breslin Center that the team has been ice cold. The Spartans have been even better on the road.
In a New Year’s Day game at Purdue, the then top team in the league, the Spartans epitomized cool down the stretch.
The team was down eight points with nine minutes to play in regulation, but held Purdue scoreless for more than seven minutes, going on a 12-0 run over the span to go up 55-51. When the Boilermakers sent the game to overtime, they again found a way to tie MSU with only three minutes left in extra play.
The Spartans relied on their defense and held Purdue without a field goal for the rest of the game, winning the game 68-62.
In Ann Arbor earlier this season, the Spartans found themselves down 31-24 to Michigan with 10:43 on the clock.
They responded by holding U-M without a field goal for nearly 10 minutes and going on a 12-1 run that all but sealed the game for MSU.
So how can you blame me for thinking that when Minnesota got hot and erased an eight-point MSU halftime lead quickly, yet only led by three with eight minutes to play, that the Spartans would again find some way to tighten their defense and gut out another win?
After all, the Spartans had outscored their opponents 761-633 in the second half entering the game.
I was prepared to write an article about how the Spartans can’t be fazed and had a seven-game winning streak — the team’s longest since the run to the national championship game in 2005.
Then I saw something that hadn’t happened yet this year.
The Gophers, fresh off a three-point squeaker against last-place Northwestern, looked just as calm. They stared down MSU’s vaunted defense and continued to hit shot after shot. Minnesota even managed to rattle the previously unshakable Spartans, forcing them into bad passes and bringing back MSU’s dormant turnover problem.
Minnesota pulled a page from its opponent’s playbook, holding the Spartans scoreless for the last 7:30 of the game.
Maybe it was the win streak. It could have been the late start. Or jet lag. Or playing in the notoriously difficult “Barn.”
Whatever it was, MSU has to find that mojo that brought it to the top of the conference over the last two months because No. 14 Ohio State is coming to play Sunday.
The premier team in the league, the Buckeyes are about the only team in the league that can match MSU in size and athleticism. They trounced the Spartans in Columbus earlier this season 67-49.
Buckeyes center Jantel Lavender, who is leading the league in scoring and rebounding, is nearly unstoppable in the post and is on track to win yet another Big Ten Player of the Year award.
She is getting help this year from guard Samantha Prahalis, the league leader in assists. Prahalis is by far the quickest guard in the Big Ten and has moves that few women possess.
To get revenge this weekend and jump back to the top of the Big Ten, those old Spartans have to return and outwork their opponents down the stretch, starting with Ohio State on Sunday.
Here’s hoping Monday was a one-time thing.