Sunday, March 26, 2023

MSU women outhustle Blue Devils in win

The MSU women’s basketball team talks about its 63-49 victory over top-seeded Duke in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The Spartans move on to play Iowa State in the Sweet 16 on Saturday, March 28 in Berkeley, Calif.

Photo by Joe Terry | The State News

They said it would take everything they had.

On Monday, Aisha Jefferson said no team shows up in March Madness with more hustle than an opponent — it would come down to mental focus.

The junior forward was right, and she was wrong.

The Spartans came out with the wind at their backs, the fight song in their hearts and a fire in their bellies. Duke came out as flat as stale Pepsi.

And the Spartans did outhustle the Blue Devils all the way to a stylish, Suzy Merchant era-defining upset win of the No. 1 seed and heavily favored Blue Devils.

“It was all about us today,” Jefferson said. “A lot of teams that play Duke just look at the name Duke and that’s the end of the game there. But we knew if we came out and played with heart and played harder than them, we would be the better team.”

Not surprisingly, the Spartans came out fired up on their home floor. What was surprising was how they kept it up.

Duke can easily run 10-deep, while the Spartans run eight-deep at best. But timeout after timeout, the scoreboard read the same: MSU on top.

And that’s how it ended. MSU 63, Duke 49.

Guard Mia Johnson’s leadership at the point and shooting from beyond the arc (season-high 17 points, incredible one turnover) was indicative of a senior with nothing to lose and everything to gain from a stunning Sweet 16 berth.

Junior center Lauren Aitch’s tenacity and competitive edge turned heads with a career performance in a career game that could give Merchant the stamp to put on this program she’s been talking about all weekend.

Coming out of the gates in the second half, the Spartans looked as though they might cave as they have in similar situations this season. But Tuesday night, the Spartans were not to be outdone.

The fans lent Merchant support and made Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie as welcome as a Wolverine in November. McCallie, who left MSU two years ago, could head home just as soon as she got here for all the Spartans fans in attendance cared.

Who knew 5,000 people could be so loud?

“It was the loudest I’ve ever heard at Breslin,” Jefferson said.

There were not going to be any moral victories. Win or go home. The Blue Devils are going home a lot sooner than they expected, and Coach P can sit in Durham and watch the girls she asked to come to MSU do what they came here to do — win.

“Any time you can beat a No. 1 seed, it’s big,” Merchant said.

“In women’s basketball, there’s a big difference between just a one and a two seed. When we were playing the eight-nine game, I was like ‘Oh, gosh. We have to go through a one.’ And then it’s Duke, a very storied program. But this just goes to show that when these girls put their minds to it, they can do anything.

“This is a signature victory.”

So many moments Tuesday night epitomized the game as it was ending — Johnson circling Waner as MSU was shooting the clinching free throws, Aitch’s and-one basket with just more than three minutes to play, and most of all, McCallie with her hands together and staring at the floor waiting for Merchant to do her interview for ESPN first.

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This was about defining a program. This was about saying goodbye to Coach P and saying hello to Coach Merchant. Duke is out and MSU is in.

Pack your bags, ladies. We’re going to Berkeley.


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