In the past week, the No. 11 MSU women’s basketball team has taken first place in the Big Ten and sold out Breslin Center for the first time. To say the team is on an emotional high would be an understatement.
But MSU head coach Suzy Merchant doesn’t believe emotions will be a factor in the team’s upcoming game against Northwestern, citing senior leadership and the fact that the class of 2011 has played enough minutes to be considered “eighth-year seniors.”
“They know they got to go to work and they have a really challenging game and got one of the best players in the conference (on) Northwestern,” Merchant said.
This year’s Spartans have an opportunity to clinch the Big Ten championship for the first time since 2004-05 — when they tied with Ohio State — and be remembered as one of the best teams in MSU women’s hoops history.
However, with players coming off such an exciting week, it’s possible this is a chance for a Big Ten team to capitalize. The team that will get the chance is Northwestern, who prays the Spartans are vulnerable and hopes they can exploit them by using one of the best players in the league in center Amy Jaeschke.
“Coming off people are saying are you guys going to have a let down,” junior forward Taylor Alton said. “Are you going to have a let down, but you know we’re here right now and we’re focused on the Wildcats. We’re going to protect our house and do what we can to stay on top.”
Other than Ohio State’s Jantel Lavender, Jaeschke is one of the only players in the conference who truly can take control of a game and carry her team alone. She currently is second in the Big Ten in scoring (22.2), fifth in rebounding (9.0) and first in blocked shots (3.6).
“The way they play and the style they play fits her perfectly,” Merchant said. “Joe (McKeown’s) done a great job with her. She’s got tremendous hands — right hand, left hand — she shoots three’s, can take it off the bounce, shot blocker. Everything runs through her, and we haven’t figured out exactly what we can do quite yet to slow her down.”
Along with her monstrous stats, Jaeschke also might be playing with a chip on her shoulder in the game. Merchant had the privilege to work as an assistant coach with the 2009 USA Women’s World University Games Team and said that Jaeschke was the last post player cut.
At her press conference Monday, the coach joked that she hopes Jaeschke knows it wasn’t her who was involved in making the cut.
“That’s the joy of USA basketball,” she said. “There’s a committee that puts people on the team and a committee who cuts them and we just coach whoever they tell us to coach, so that’s a positive thing. No bad blood there.”
Jaeschke will be the most dangerous, but she will need her teammates if they hope to upset the Spartans.
For the most part, Northwestern is in the middle of the pack statistically. Sixth in the league in scoring defense and eighth in scoring margin means the Spartans — who are first in both — hold the advantage.
MSU also will have the home court advantage, carrying a 19-game winning streak at Breslin. Although there likely won’t be 14,797 people in the stands like there were against Michigan, the Spartans still look to impress fans with their best performance.
“I mean it probably is (intimidating),” junior forward Lykendra Johnson said. “Last year we had Ohio State and they had a 38-game win streak, or something like that, and just going in we were intimidated, but we got the win. But just being here at the Breslin, we got the fans behind us, we’re going to play hard and play with intensity.”
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