Saturday, April 20, 2024

Comeback kids

Late 3-pointer seals first-round win

Junior forward Aisha Jefferson, right, celebrates the Spartans’ fouling out Middle Tennessee State junior forward Alysha Clark during the last period of the during the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Clark was a high scorer for Middle Tennessee. The Spartans won, 60-59.

Photo by Jeana-Dee Allen | The State News

Call it a senior moment. With the score tied in a 57-57 game with Middle Tennessee State, guard Mia Johnson, the MSU women’s basketball team’s lone senior, got the ball on the wing and fired a three-point shot over an outstretched Blue Raiders defender. Johnson, who missed a three on the previous possession, watched the shot fall effortlessly through the basket, giving the Spartans a 60-57 lead with 1:10 remaining in a game they eventually would go on to win 60-59.

“Well, I don’t know (if it was going in), but I was hoping because I was missing them early on,” Johnson said. “I didn’t need any other (shot), I needed that one at that time.”

But the game wasn’t always as close as the final score made it seem.

The Spartans started the game the way their last game finished, committing bad turnovers and missing open shots.

Middle Tennessee forward Alysha Clark, the nation’s leading scorer, was owning the low block, scoring six of the first nine points for the Blue Raiders, pulling her team out to a 9-6 lead at the first media timeout.

MSU junior forward Aisha Jefferson tried to answer, scoring eight of the Spartans’ first 10 points, but watched as Middle Tennessee went on an 11-0 run to make it 24-10.

The Spartans would go down by as many as 15 points in the first half before sophomore forward Cetera Washington almost single-handedly brought the Spartans back.

The Spartans methodically got themselves back into the game as Washington drew a foul against Clark to get herself to the line, then, after hitting two free throws, got a blocked shot, an offensive rebound and a layup to pull within 11, 27-16.

“I felt (Washington) started us in the first half,” MSU head coach Suzy Merchant said. “She was not intimidated. She was the one that was offensively and defensively taking it to people. … I give Cetera Washington a lot of credit for this win from the tip. She had a look in her eye and she played her heart out, and a lot of people came along and joined her.”

The spark by Washington got the crowd into the game and started an MSU run, as sophomore forward Kalisha Keane hit a 3-pointer and Jefferson followed with a three of her own the next possession to narrow the score to 27-22. The Spartans would shrink the lead to three with a pair of Keane free throws the next possession but trailed by six entering halftime, 38-32.

“Being a leader along with a couple other people, we were just talking about poise (at halftime),” Jefferson said. “It was not really much of the pressure that was killing us, it was ourselves that was doing it, it was not anything they were doing. We finally figured it out and took our time.”

MSU came out of the locker room with the same firepower and quickly got to within one point, as Johnson hit a driving layup, getting fouled in the process and hitting a free throw to close the gap to 40-39.

However, the Blue Raiders scrapped and MSU didn’t take the lead until the 13:13 mark when Keane got a steal and drove the length of the court for a breakaway layup.

Clark continued her scoring onslaught and brought Middle Tennessee back in front with a scoop and a foul, hitting the free throw to put the Blue Raiders up 47-45 with 11:07 left to play. Clark finished the game with 34 points and 10 rebounds.

Middle Tennessee stretched the lead to 57-50 when the final media timeout was called at 3:50, giving the Spartans time to think about where they stood.

“We knew everything was on the line, and that this was it,” Johnson said. “Right then and there I think we got a sense of urgency in us to let us know that if we did not pick it up we were going home.”

MSU went on a 7-0 run out of the timeout, consistently attacking Clark on the low block after the Blue Raiders’ star picked up her fourth foul.

With 1:35 left in the game, as Clark drove to the basket, Jefferson slid behind junior center Allyssa DeHaan and drew her third charge of the game, fouling Clark out.

Johnson’s 3-pointer put the Spartans up 60-57, but Middle Tennessee came back with a contested layup from forward Brandi Brown to bring the score to within one point, 60-59.

After a missed shot by MSU, the Blue Raiders marched down the court and called a timeout with 10.5 seconds remaining.

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The play drawn up was going to Clark all game, but in her absence went to Brown, who had the ball tipped away by DeHaan. Washington came up with the ball and the team rushed the court to celebrate the 60-59 win.

“We entered the ball high and probably shouldn’t have entered the ball high, but (DeHaan) was a force down there,” Middle Tennessee head coach Rick Insell said.

“If you look at one thing, every time they took her out we were able to have our way. … You have to say that she was the difference in the ball game.”

The Spartans move on to play Duke and former coach Joanne P. McCallie at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Breslin Center.

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