With less than two minutes remaining in the game, Middle Tennessee State’s Alysha Clark drove to the basket for what could have been one more bucket to add to a stunning point total. Instead, she missed a layup and knocked junior forward Aisha Jefferson to the ground in pursuit of the rebound. The whistle sounded, resulting in Clark’s fifth foul and a pivotal moment in MSU’s 60-59 NCAA Tournament victory against the Blue Raiders on Sunday at Breslin Center.
Clark was nearly unstoppable at times, scoring 34 points and pulling down 10 rebounds. The Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year lived up to her billing, but there was a feeling of confidence that surged over the Spartans when the superstar fouled out and headed to the bench.
“Them losing her was a huge advantage for us because she is such a great player and a focal point for their team,” MSU sophomore forward Kalisha Keane said. “It really helped us to be able to get up and pressure a little bit more and deny a little more because they didn’t have that inside presence.”
Jefferson was largely responsible for knocking Clark out of the game, drawing three offensive fouls — including two in the final seven minutes.
“I just knew she was cutting across, so I tried to sneak outand get that quick charge on her,” Jefferson said. “She was driving and I kind of hid behind (junior center Allyssa DeHaan) and was there for the charge. I told my coach I would get at least two on her.”
Clark had more points than the rest of her team combined, but also had more than half (nine) of the team’s total turnovers (14). She was perfect from the free-throw line (4-for-4) and from deep (2-for-2) and took a total of 25 shots from the field.
For a lengthy stretch — from the 11:06 mark in the first half to the 10:00 mark in the second half — Clark was literally the entire Middle Tennessee offense. She scored 28 consecutive Blue Raiders points.
“Our system is set up where we’re going to enter the ball to that position,” Middle Tennessee coach Rick Insell said. “It was just one of those things. We don’t really look at those situations of who’s getting all the points. If Alysha’s getting them, we’re going back to Alysha.”
A full 40
Following the Spartans’ Big Ten Tournament exit at the hands of Wisconsin two weeks ago, Jefferson lamented that her hard-fought effort in the final few minutes should have been for the entire game.
On Sunday, she left little doubt that she was going to leave it all on the floor in the do-or-die situation. And she paid the price.
“My body feels terrible,” she laughed. “But I got the pads and knee braces and ankle braces and shoulder braces.”
Jefferson had a team-high 20 points and 10 rebounds, her second-highest scoring total of the year and her second double-double.
She scored eight of the Spartans’ first 10 points of the game, keeping them at pace with the Blue Raiders’ quick offense. She was 3-for-3 from the free-throw line and 1-for-1 from beyond the 3-point line.
“We didn’t have a sense of urgency in our last game against Wisconsin,” she said. “Everybody’s got a new mind-set. It’s a new season. We don’t have anything else to play for after this. It’s all or nothing.
“You get to see it in everybody’s eyes, even the younger kids experiencing it for the first time. I took it upon myself to lead by example and I’m pretty sure they noticed how focused I was out there.”
MSU’s greatest asset for stopping Clark under the basket was by rejecting anything she threw up. The Spartans finished with 11 blocks, tying an NCAA Tournament high set in 2007 against Delaware. It also ties the team-high total set earlier this year against Xavier.
As Clark moved around the basket, she would go up and under DeHaan for scoop layups and reverse baskets. But after the first few fell, the 6-foot-9 DeHaan caught on.
“We just worked on playing straight up,” DeHaan said.
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“She wasn’t going to shoot it over me or get around me and if she was she’d have to go over 6-foot-9.”
DeHaan, the program’s all-time leading shot blocker, had six swats, while sophomore forward Cetera Washington had two and three other players had one.
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