The MSU women’s basketball team hasn’t won six of its last seven games by luck.
The Spartans are playing with a defensive swagger, allowing only 54.8 points per game during that stretch. Although the defense has stood out, it’s the team’s toughness that has head coach Suzy Merchant raving.
“We had some kids that were going through the motions and managing their energy, but we got a little bit more of our emotion and fight back, coupled with a little more focus on the defensive end, and I think that comes from everybody really stepping up and making a conscious decision to be a little tougher,” Merchant said Monday at her weekly press conference . “We’ve just gotten tougher. We got a little bit nastier and a little bit tougher. A little bit of refuse to lose attitude and trying to really shut people down.”
The Spartans have allowed more than 60 points only three times in 2010, and held two teams, Michigan and Northwestern, to 45 and 55 points, respectively.
“I think we played as good of defense as we can,” Merchant said. “Our field goal percent defense has really improved in this stretch and that’s been a big difference. Our rebounding definitely has taken a step forward as well.”
MSU has held its opponents to a conference-low 34.9 percent from the field this season, the 19th best mark in the country.
Although Merchant recently has used a nine-player rotation, she summoned sophomore forward Taja Wilson from the bench in the second half Sunday and got solid minutes out of her.
Wilson played seven minutes, scoring three points (all from the free-throw line) and grabbing two rebounds. It was Wilson’s first appearance since Feb. 4 and her fifth appearance of the new year.
Merchant said after Sunday’s game Wilson earned her time after a “really good” week of practice.
“I felt like we were struggling defensively and I really believed Taja could go in there and make a difference for us and I thought she did a nice job,” Merchant said. “She’s very strong and powerful and she does a nice job of keeping her seal in there and being strong, and she’s a good free-throw shooter. I really felt like she could have sparked us (Sunday).”
That depth is allowing MSU to play at a high pace and remain fresh, which was one of the team’s advertised strengths at the beginning of the season.
“I think our depth is becoming a factor right now in this stretch,” Merchant said. “We’ve gone nine-deep, (Sunday) we went 10-deep. I think that helps our legs. I think that helps our ability to defend and stay fresh.”
Junior guard Brittney Thomas played all 40 minutes Sunday, only the second time a Spartan has played an entire game this season. The other? Thomas on Jan. 14 against Wisconsin.
“I probably should’ve subbed her out a little bit there,” Merchant said. “She’s just a good defender. You kind of feel better with her on the floor in terms of running the show and making sure we’re in what we’re in.”
Thomas is on pace to lead the team in minutes for the third straight season. She averaged 35.1 minutes her freshman season and 32.5 her sophomore year, but missed the final 10 games with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
She bumped this season’s minutes average from 29.8 to 30.6 after playing 39 minutes against U-M and 40 against Northwestern.
“One thing about Britt is that she’s played 40 minutes basically her entire career, so she’s kind of used to that,” Merchant said.