A collective cheer took a year’s worth of grief off the shoulders of the MSU women’s basketball team. After being left out of the NCAA Tournament last season, the Spartans were awarded a No. 9 seed this season and will play No. 8 Middle Tennessee State in the first round of the tournament.
MSU is hosting the first two rounds of the women’s tournament at Breslin Center on Sunday and Tuesday.
“Obviously we’re excited,” head coach Suzy Merchant said. “We’re really looking forward to playing here in Breslin, and having our fans here. (We’re) going to play a very challenging game in that first round against Middle Tennessee State.”
Middle Tennessee, the Sun Belt Conference champion, sports a record of 28-5 and has won 23 of its last 24 games. Some of the Blue Raiders’ key wins this season have come over larger teams like Indiana, Arizona, LSU and Alabama.
The star of Middle Tennessee is forward Alysha Clark, who is averaging 27.3 points, 9.8 rebounds and two steals per game this season.
“They’re a very, very good team top to bottom and it starts with her,” Merchant said.
Although the Spartans missed the NCAA Tournament last season, their deep run into the WNIT Tournament has prepared them for the mentality that is needed for success this March, junior guard Mandy Piechowski said.
“Having that survive mode, you don’t have that in league (games),” Piechowski said. “If you lose or win it’s really not going to change if you’re going to play the next day or not. Having that experience … it really helped us, because we did have a young team. To have a young team go through an experience like that and all be back for this year is great.”
But for all of the excitement over getting in the tournament, an even larger story loomed over the proceedings. Duke was given the No. 1 seed in the region and will travel to East Lansing, where Blue Devils head coach Joanne P. McCallie, who left MSU two seasons ago to coach in Durham, will make her first return to the Breslin floor in an opposing uniform.
“Seeing them in the bracket, East Lansing, that’s exciting,” junior forward Aisha Jefferson said. “Coach P. definitely did a lot of good things for Michigan State. Playing under her was a great experience for me and it’s definitely interesting how the NCAA committee is making this tournament a lot more exciting.”
McCallie coached seven seasons in East Lansing, compiling a 149-75 record and taking the Spartans to the national championship game in 2005, before abruptly leaving for Duke. Merchant tried to quell any thoughts of playing the former coach, since MSU still needs to win one game before it even has a chance to face Duke.
“She recruited a lot of these kids and some of these kids played for her,” Merchant said. “But you’re not going to play anybody in the NCAA Tournament if you don’t win the first one. … Our focus isn’t going to be on the next one — in the NCAA Tournament that is a recipe for disaster.”
The Spartans tip off against Middle Tennessee at noon Sunday.
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