After back-to-back appearances in the NCAA Tournament, the No. 25 MSU women’s basketball team will look to continue its success and reach its goal of the 2011 Final Four.
The road to the Final Four begins Saturday afternoon, when the Spartans take on IPFW in the regular season opener at 3 p.m. at Breslin Center.
After their second-round exit in the NCAA Tournament at the hands of Kentucky last season, junior forward LyKendra Johnson said the team got its wake-up call and has prepared itself harder than ever for the upcoming year.
“(The loss to Kentucky) made us work on little stuff we need to work on, like cardiowise and just people keeping up,” Johnson said. “I mean, (in the) off-season everybody works hard, but this season, people were actually pushing themselves because we know we have to compete against everybody on this team and against other people.”
Junior guard Porschè Poole is one of those players trying to get into a rhythm with her teammates and especially with her head coach Suzy Merchant.
Merchant demands her team play tough defense, and if Poole wants to become a more active member and see more minutes on the floor, she needs to think defense first, she said.
The 5-foot-8 guard from Canton, Ohio, trained all summer, electing to stay in East Lansing rather than return home, changing her diet and dropping 30 pounds in the offseason.
“I definitely feel it,” Poole said. “I feel a lot lighter, a lot faster. I can get into my defender and also still run the offense and feel great.”
Guard play shouldn’t be an issue for the Spartans this season.
Along with Poole, the team returns senior forward Cetera Washington and honorable mention All-Big Ten guard Brittney Thomas, who is No. 12 all-time in assists at MSU.
The Spartans also added freshmen guards Klarissa Bell and Annalise Pickrel, who bring the Spartans guard count to eight.
With plenty of depth in the backcourt, the Spartans will look to play a fast-paced game.
“You guys can see it on our face,” she said. We love getting out and running.”
The Spartans will have a tough schedule this season, which includes a trip to Waco, Texas, on Nov. 19 to take on the No. 2 Baylor Bears and matchups against No. 18 Florida State and No. 17 Texas a few weeks later. And that doesn’t include the Big Ten Conference schedule.
Depth in the frontcourt could be the Spartans’ weak spot this year, especially with highly touted freshman Madison Williams suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, on Oct. 31, sidelining her for the season.
Williams was going to be another strong inside presence for MSU after the graduation of All-American center Allyssa DeHaan.
“We’re going to miss (Williams),” Merchant said. “Our post rotation is not as deep as it’s been. We were definitely relying on her, and you don’t have another (6-foot-7) McDonald’s All-American to pull from the bench.
“My thing is you can’t really change it, so for us to say, ‘Oh if we only had.’ Well we don’t, so let’s quit talking about it. This is the team we have.”
That team finds itself nationally ranked. Part of the reason for that is for returning both Johnson and 2009 Big Ten Sixth Player of the Year Kalisha Keane, who, in two exhibition matches, has averaged 14 points and is 6-of-6 from 3-point range this season. Johnson averaged 8.8 points and 7.6 rebounds last season.
MSU also will welcome back sophomore forward Courtney Schiffauer, who missed the final 31 games of last season after tearing her ACL. Although Johnson is only a junior, Merchant named her a captain for the leadership she has shown throughout the offseason and continues to show through Williams’ injury.
“Honestly, it’s an honor for me to actually be in this category because last year I was struggling to even open my mouth,” Johnson said. “But now I talk to them. I talk to my team, (and) I believe in them.”
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