Four months ago, Sunday’s contest between the MSU women’s basketball team and No. 7 Ohio State was circled as a crucial game on the road to the Big Ten regular season championship.
Although that went out the window because of MSU’s early conference struggles and Ohio State’s dominance, Sunday’s 3 p.m. game at Value City Arena in Columbus, Ohio isn’t completely devoid of meaning.
The Buckeyes, who clinched the Big Ten regular season title Sunday, still have NCAA Tournament seeding in mind and a win against MSU would help. For the Spartans, the team has shifted its focus to claiming the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, a goal that can be accomplished with wins in each of their remaining three games.
Getting to that goal starts with beating Ohio State, a team that beat MSU 65-62 on Jan. 9 to start a three-game MSU losing streak. Since that losing streak, MSU has won 7-of-8 and feels it has improved in all facets of the game.
“I think we’ve gotten better, I think that would be the biggest thing,” junior forward Kalisha Keane said. “At that time, our defense wasn’t where it is right now. We’re more aggressive in all aspects on the court, not just one or two players being aggressive. As a unit, I think were more focused on not dwelling on things, just moving forward and locking down people on defense.”
The Spartans (18-8 overall, 9-6 Big Ten) are in a second-place tie with Purdue, a team MSU will face Thursday in West Lafayette, Ind.
MSU head coach Suzy Merchant said she believes her team has “grown defensively,” which the numbers show. The Spartans have allowed an average of 53 points per game since their three-game losing streak, including holding Illinois to a season-low 43 points Thursday.
That defense will be greatly tested by Ohio State guard Samantha Prahalis and center Jantel Lavender. In the first meeting between the two teams, that duo combined for 52 of their team’s 65 points. They both played all 40 minutes.
“We have to play better ball-screen defense,” Merchant said. “They’re a great ball-screen offensive team led by Prahalis and Jantel. They’re just a tough one-two punch.”
Ohio State (26-3, 14-2) has gone through some interesting stretches this season. Each of the Buckeyes’ Big Ten games have been decided by five points or less or 11 points or more. There has been no middle ground.
The Spartans have been winning games with stingy defense and an opportunistic offense.
“It’s a great time to peak right now at this point in the season,” senior center Allyssa DeHaan said. “We just have so much depth and so much talent that we can keep throwing people at them and running them to death and it works. It’s great. I just think we’re all there for each other.
“Coach said, too, that they’re kind of at the same point that they were and we’ve improved in a lot of areas, so we’re excited for the challenge down there.”
Games against Ohio State have been big for each time since both programs have risen to national prominence. Sunday should be no different.
“We’re going to be ready. We’re going to be ready,” sophomore guard Porsche Poole said. “We know what it’s going to take in practice, we’re going to read our scouting report over and over, we’re going to watch some good film and I think we’re ready. We’re a lot better. Our defense has gotten a lot better, our offense has gotten a lot better. We’re playing a lot better together, so we just need to go there and transfer all that over to O-State. It’s going to be a tough one, but I think we got it.”
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