It’s the morning of Dec. 6. The MSU women’s basketball team is a few days removed from one of its biggest wins ever at Breslin Center, a 72-66 victory against then-No. 4 North Carolina. The challenge that day: conference foe Indiana in the Big Ten opener.
What transpired that afternoon was one of MSU’s worst and most disappointing performances of the season against the 4-3 Hoosiers. The Spartans shot 29 percent for the game — 21.2 percent in a 24-point second half — blowing a 10-point halftime lead in a 68-63 loss.
“We didn’t match their intensity,” senior center Lauren Aitch said after the game. “We came out there and kind of played to their level. That was a team we should’ve rolled over. With our skill and our caliber of play, that’s something we should’ve done easily. But we came out there with no focus. We were fouling, we were doing things that weren’t characteristic of our team.”
Three days later, the Spartans had a date with undefeated then-No. 8 Xavier. MSU, led by senior center Allyssa DeHaan’s 22 points and 13 rebounds, took a nine-point halftime lead and never looked back, winning by 13.
In a season where the Spartans have played four games against teams in the top 10 and currently boast the fourth-toughest schedule in the nation, their biggest nemesis hasn’t been the schedule.
Instead, MSU’s biggest enemy has been itself.
The Spartans entered the season with high hopes and even higher expectations. The team was ranked No. 10 in The Associated Press’ preseason poll and were even ranked as high as No. 4 on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
But inconsistencies on both the team and individual levels showed themselves early.
In the season opener against Dayton, the team was outrebounded by a smaller squad in a 77-74 loss. Two games later against then-No. 5 Notre Dame, the Spartans battled and were in the game until the bitter end, losing 68-67.
Those games, and the team’s play in them, seemingly has set the tone for the remainder of the season.
The team’s inconsistent play has left head coach Suzy Merchant and her staff scratching their heads.
“I don’t know if you can fix it,” Merchant said Monday. “I just know it’s a mindset a little bit, too. I think it starts a little bit to put pressure on Allyssa DeHaan. It starts there. To be honest with you, she has to be consistent for us. She had a double-double in the second half (Jan. 3) against Indiana, but she probably could’ve had that in both halves if she had really been aggressive out of the gates.
“I think she can do some more for our team, and when she’s playing aggressively, you can see that our team, everybody else steps up to the plate. And I think that’s a big key for her to really take charge.”
DeHaan’s aggressiveness, or sometimes lack thereof, has been an ongoing issue since the day she set foot on campus. She’s been a major force at times this season but, like the team, has been up and down. Merchant said the foundation for what the team does is through DeHaan and the co-captain needs to decide to take over.
“There’s people that need to step up individually, including myself, to be more consistent night-in and night-out,” DeHaan said. “I wasn’t there on the offensive end for my team against Ohio State. I did all right defensively. It can be anybody’s night, any game we play (but) nobody’s consistently putting in 15, 20 points. That’s what (Merchant’s) talking about. We need somebody to kind of hop on and ride through. We’re just kind of waiting for people to do it, which is terrible. That’s what we need to do, we need to have more leadership.”
Merchant lately has spoken about leadership and the need to get more out of her seniors, where some of the consistency struggles have started. Although fixing it may begin with the seniors, it’s been a team-wide issue.
“It’s important that every game you come out, you come out with a lot of attitude and aggressiveness and with that same kind of energy and toughness,” Merchant said. That’s been our problem a little bit. I worried a little bit more about that and that comes down to leadership of people, being the same night-in and night-out and having that consistency. I think that has been a little bit of an edge for us. We haven’t had as consistent play out of players.”
Merchant said senior forward Aisha Jefferson and junior forward Kalisha Keane have been providing vocal leadership — Keane said she’s never afraid to call somebody out — but a leader is more effective if she’s on the floor.
“Obviously Lauren (Aitch) can and has (been a vocal leader) at times,” Merchant said. “The problem with Lauren is that she’s played a lot of Big Ten games here where she’s in foul trouble in two minutes. She’s got to do a better job of staying on the floor so her voice can be heard. I think she has great leadership skills and may be the best on this team. But it’s hard when you’re trying to lead from the bench.”
Junior guard Cetera Washington said the team might have been too close and afraid to upset one another earlier in the season. Now, teammates are calling each other out.
“We all get along, but when it comes to basketball, you can call a player out, but at the end of the day when we go down to the locker room, you’re still friends,” she said. “I think some people are afraid they can’t do that but they should know that on this team, we’re so open about everything, it’s just to make us better.”
Figuring it out
No. 1 Connecticut has won 55 straight games. Ohio State has won five straight Big Ten titles. Both teams feature players that get the job done almost every night. And when the superstars are struggling, there’s someone there to step in.
“I do think Ohio State, the one thing they have is a point guard and a five that show up every night and do the same things every night and they have a good supporting cast, but those two kids, you know night-in and night-out what you’re going to get with them,” Merchant said. “We always haven’t had that consistency that we need on the offensive end, which can get you out of the flow a little bit. It’s good to have the depth we have so that you can play more people, but I think we need a little more consistency.”
It’s a problem the team actively is trying to solve.
“I certainly think it’s something you work on every day in practice,” Merchant said. “For us, it’s a little more about focus and attention to detail with kids. Sometimes some kids are real high and pumped up for a certain game and the next game they’re maybe not, going through the motions. That’s what makes it kind of hard.”
The lack of consistency, Washington said, is what’s holding the Spartans back from accomplishing what was expected of them.
“You’ve seen us come out flat, you’ve seen us come out high and just the high-low. You can’t turn it on and off,” she said. “We have to come out every single game with the same intensity like we played with against Ohio State. If we played like that, our record wouldn’t be like it is right now.”