About 10 minutes after her team’s season-ending loss to Iowa State, MSU women’s basketball head coach Suzy Merchant located a TV backstage at Haas Pavilion.
For the first of what would prove to be many times, Merchant relived the anguishing final 87 seconds of the game.
Since the March 28 loss, Merchant estimates she’s replayed the conclusion of the game at least 500 times. Each time, the loss stings just as much as the time before.
“We feel we should have gotten through that one,” Merchant said Thursday during her end-of-season press conference.
“I think that leaves a little bit of a bad taste in your mouth, given we had that game in control.”
With a spot in the Elite Eight on the line, No. 9-seed MSU led No. 4-seed Iowa State 68-61 with 1:27 left. But the Spartans failed to score and committed two crucial turnovers down the stretch, allowing the Cyclones to mount a big comeback and win 69-68.
Merchant said her team collapsed mentally.
“I saw kids not finish the job. I saw kids very tentative. I saw a little bit of frustration, surprise and shock,” Merchant said. “But at the same time, hopefully a little growth.”
Rather than despair about the opportunity her team abandoned in Berkeley, Calif., Merchant hopes
her team will consider the loss a learning experience and motivation to make another deep tournament run next season.
Given the talent and experience returning next season, overcoming the mental trauma of that loss could be MSU’s biggest challenge.
“There’s no reason to cry,” Merchant said. “We had it. The only thing we can do is learn from it, and the returning kids who are coming back need to remember what this feels like.”
Flashes of greatness
MSU will have to deal with the loss of senior guard Mia Johnson, but the Spartans will retain every other key player from last season’s run.
Among the players returning are forward Aisha Jefferson and guard Brittney Thomas — both of who should enter the season fully healthy — and emerging star, forward Lykendra Johnson.
But arguably no player could dictate MSU’s success quite like junior center Allyssa DeHaan, who during the tournament showcased her incredible upside on the offensive end.
At 6-foot-9, DeHaan was a nightmare matchup against Iowa State, scoring 24 points. But the excitement of that performance was tempered by the fact she scored just six points in MSU’s two previous matches against Middle Tennessee and Duke.
Merchant said she’ll continue to work with DeHaan, who has always been a defensive star, on becoming a more consistent offensive threat. But she also acknowledged there’s only so much she can do.
“When she plays a little bit mad, plays more aggressive and plays with confidence and within her ability, she can do that night in and night out,” Merchant said about the Iowa State game.
“With Allyssa, it starts a little bit more between her ears probably than anything, because she’s got the physical talent. It’s just a matter of her stepping up.”
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Unlike past offseasons, when defense has been her main area of focus, Merchant will focus more this offseason on getting the Spartans to improve on the other end.
“I have to become a better offensive coach with more emphasis on individual skill,” Merchant said.
“I think I failed in that department.”
Specifically, Merchant will work with her guards on dribble-driving to the hoop, an area in which the Spartans struggled last season.
Merchant will tailor her team’s offseason program around that, as well her team’s need to improve from a conditioning standpoint.
“We need to do a better job as coaches in the offseason at designing specific programs that work for each of these kids,” Merchant said. “Our fitness level has to come up a little bit, our bodies have to change a little bit in this offseason.”
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