After five consecutive years of watching Ohio State reign atop the Big Ten conference and raise banner after banner, the No. 11 MSU women’s basketball team — with a 69-56 victory at Illinois — have dethroned the former champions and will carry the trophy a few hours north to East Lansing.
With the win, the Spartans (24-3 overall, 12-2 Big Ten) have clinched at least a share of the Big Ten title for the first time since 2005 and just the third time in the history of the program.
MSU head coach Suzy Merchant, who in only her fourth year is taking the MSU program to new heights, said the game wasn’t pretty, but she sensed the team possessed the right attitude to come away with the historic win.
“You got to be proud of the kids,” Merchant told Spartan Sports Network after the game. “(Senior forward Kalisha Keane) was not going to have it today. She kind of had that mentality of this is not going to slip by us and this was one opportunity we need to make sure we capitalize on.”
Now the Spartans will hang a banner of their own, and much of that has to do with the seniors. As they have all season, Keane, senior guard Brittney Thomas and senior forward Cetera Washington willed the team to a victory Sunday.
With 27 points, Keane came one point shy of tying her career high. Thomas matched her career high by adding 19 points of her own. And with junior forward Lykendra Johnson limited because of foul trouble, Washington owned the boards with a team-leading six rebounds.
They also assisted in holding the Fighting Illini to 0-for-12 shooting from behind the arc. The way the Spartans played defense wasn’t exceptional, but it was enough to hold off the conference’s last-place team from stealing a win, Merchant said.
“We knew they were struggling a little bit, but anybody at home who has an opportunity to try and knock off the number one team that could be there season,” she said.
Although the Fighting Illini lost the game, it wasn’t because of a lack of effort from Karisma Penn, who had 33 points and joined in with her own career-high day.
With Johnson out it was easier for Penn to grab offensive rebounds and score on put-backs, which Merchant said is where most of her success came from. The coach said she enjoyed how her team handled Penn defensively, pointing out the Fighting Illini needed to eat up most of the shot clock on each possession to find her.
“I really like how we handled her,” she said. “She didn’t get a lot of easy quick-hit enters in the post. They had to move that ball around to try and get it to her.”
Despite the win, the Spartans still have work to do. Now, on a night where the seniors will play their last game in Breslin Center, the team will try to make program history by clinching the Big Ten title outright for the first time against none other than the Buckeyes.
With what could be a pressure-filled game, Merchant said she doesn’t need to search far to learn how to cope with the special opportunity.
“We got a great motto in the program across the hall from us,” she said. “And they’ve done it for a couple straight years where they’ve had opportunities to hang banners for Big Ten championships and at the same time celebrate (the) senior class. So we’re going to follow what the men do and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”
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