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An MSU senior moment

December 3, 2009

Head coach Suzy Merchant celebrates with the bench during the second half of the Spartan’s 72-66 victory on Thursday night at Breslin Center. The win was the first victory over North Carolina in the women’s basketball program’s history.

In one of the biggest games of their careers, three MSU women’s basketball team senior captains came up huge for MSU. It started with forward Aisha Jefferson’s hustle and tenacity in the first half. Then it went to centers Lauren Aitch and Allyssa DeHaan. Aitch scored 10 of her 15 points in the first half while DeHaan scored all 14 of her points in the second half to lead the No. 22 Spartans to a 72-66 win against No. 4 North Carolina on Thursday night at Breslin Center.

“We thought we could get this game,” DeHaan said. “The last two days in practice we knew we could get this game if we came out and played for each other.”

It was MSU’s first nonconference win against a top-five opponent ever at Breslin.

“It’s a great thing for our team that says we’re not going to back down, we’re not going to beat ourselves,” said head coach Suzy Merchant. “We showed our poise and said we weren’t going to back down …. and I look at that and that’s where games are won and lost in the last minutes. I think that’s our veteran leadership showing through.”

It was a sloppy game, as both teams combined for 52 turnovers — 27 for the Spartans and 24 for the Tar Heels, but MSU helped make up for it by posting 19 assists.

“It was pretty intense out there, both sides,” Merchant said. “I was proud of the way we responded to that, especially on the boards.”

The Spartans led through much of the second half, but allowed North Carolina to go on a 15-3 run to take a 64-63 lead with 2:31 remaining.

But from there, DeHaan took over, scoring six of MSU’s next seven points, including a crucial 15-foot jumper with 57 seconds remaining to put the Spartans ahead 68-64, allowing the team to salt away the game at the free-throw line.

“I just knew I had to come out strong in the second half,” DeHaan said.

MSU was able to overcome the performance of North Carolina guard Italee Lucas, who scored 29 points and continually kept the Tar Heels in the game.

Jefferson set the tone for MSU early, hustling to every ball and playing with a grit unseen this season. She scored eight of MSU’s first 15 points to set the pace. She finished with 13 points and six rebounds.

The Spartans were able to lead through much of the first half despite DeHaan going to the bench for two early offensive fouls. DeHaan’s replacement, Aitch, took charge, giving MSU a 10-3 lead with three straight baskets.

“Lauren Aitch really stepped it up,” DeHaan said.

It was an unusual situation for DeHaan.

“Coach and I were just talking about how this was probably the first time in my career I’ve been put on the bench because of two offensive fouls,” she said.

But from there, the Spartans would go 7:01 without a field goal, allowing the Tar Heels to go on an 11-0 run until Jefferson put the Spartans ahead with back-to-back baskets. She was fouled on the second and converted the free throw to give MSU a 15-14 lead.

While MSU’s scoring was distributed among many players, North Carolina guards Lucas and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt combined for 13 of their next 14 points as MSU built a 38-28 lead in the first five minutes of the second half. Five different Spartans scored in that span.

MSU was able to build a lead despite 17 first-half turnovers, and the Spartans out-rebounded the Tar Heels 24-17.

But as the Spartans built and maintained around a 10-point lead, Lucas kept North Carolina in it, hitting two big 3-pointers and two free throws as the Tar Heels cut MSU’s lead to five, 46-41 with 10:30 to play.

Lucas would continue to keep North Carolina in the game, though. At one point through the middle of the half, she scored 11 straight points for the Tar Heels, but MSU would continue to keep up.

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Junior forward Kalisha Keane scored her first eight points of the game in a span of 3:09 and then found sophomore guard Porschè Poole for a reverse lay-in as the Spartans grabbed their largest lead of the game at 11, 60-49 with seven minutes to play.

Keane finished with eight points and tied a career high with seven assists.

The Tar Heels picked up their 10th foul of the half with 6:14 to play, putting the Spartans in the double bonus the rest of the way.

But again, Lucas would continue to be a thorn in MSU’s side, knocking down back-to-back 3-pointers, igniting a 12-1 run to tie the game at 61 with four minutes remaining.

From there, DeHaan checked back in and asserted her will, leading the Spartans to victory.

MSU opens Big Ten play at noon Sunday against Indiana.

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