After freshman center — a.k.a former Spartan Alyssa DeHaan’s replacement — Madison Williams went down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, would anyone have believed me if I said MSU women’s basketball head coach Suzy Merchant would be able to reshape her offense and turn the No. 11 Spartans into a Big Ten championship-caliber team?
You would be lying if you said yes, and even I would have been second guessing myself.
This team was check marked as “doomed” when Williams got hurt. The 6-foot-7 center hadn’t even stepped foot on the court yet, but since Merchant’s previous teams had revolved around DeHaan’s presence, no one believed the Spartans could contend.
I mean, come on, Merchant had just two weeks before the season started to reshape her team’s identity completely. Even for men’s basketball head coach Tom Izzo, it’s absurd to believe that would be feasible.
With just one center on the roster who had no in-game experience, the season was shaping out to be a complete failure.
However, Merchant might have seen her first glimmer of hope when the 6-foot-1, junior forward Lykendra Johnson immediately asked to take over the role of the center. That move right there, when Johnson confronted her coach instead of vice versa, became the first of many moves that would define what is now a Big Ten championship team and a team contending to be called the best in MSU history.
No MSU team has ever clinched the Big Ten title outright and only two other times (1997 and 2005) have the Spartans even taken a share of the title.
Now, a team depleted and pegged as finished prior to the season has a realistic chance to be the only team atop the Big Ten standings after the final games have been played.
It all goes back to the senior leaders on this team. Seniors Kalisha Keane, Brittney Thomas and Cetera Washington sparked the life back into this team. They were committed to not letting their senior season go down as a disappointment.
At the beginning of the season Thomas stressed the class of 2011 would establish a new identity that involved hustling up and down the court, fighting for every loose ball and at the end of the game — win or lose — she wanted the opposing team to say, “Wow, I don’t want to play MSU again.”
I’d say mission accomplished.
Thomas, along with Keane and Washington, fully embraced Merchant’s style of becoming defense-first type of players and they have reaped the benefits. A 24-3 record and a chance to be outright champions by grabbing one more win at home.
Fittingly, the game will be the seniors’ last in front of their home crowd and will be played against Ohio State, who until this season had won the title five consecutive times.
On top of that the Buckeyes have been the Spartans nemesis since Merchant’s tenure began, always finishing one step ahead of MSU.
In a season where the women’s team managed to sell out Breslin Center for the first time, a game against 17-9 Ohio State likely will serve as the biggest and most memorable.
It’s been a season of firsts for the women’s basketball program. They still have a long road to go, especially since the 2005 team were the runners-up to a NCAA championship.
But with just one more win these Spartans can do something that even that team couldn’t, and we truly can begin arguing that a team which reworked its entire scheme in 14 days might be the best MSU has seen.
For the seniors, they’ll be happy just playing the “new” Spartan basketball against the Buckeyes. And win or lose, if they can make Ohio State beg for the buzzer and sprint for the busses when it’s over, it’s another mission accomplished.
Anthony Odoardi is a State News sports reporter. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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