The titles “leading scorer” and “record breaker” usually aren’t connected to senior guard Brittney Thomas. It’s usually words such as “defense,” “passion” and “leadership.”
But when Thomas and the No. 11 MSU women’s basketball team welcomed Purdue to East Lansing on Sunday, Thomas gained those titles.
The Spartans (20-3 overall, 8-2 Big Ten) defeated the Boilermakers (16-8, 6-5) by the score of 76-57, and Thomas set a career high with 22 points — and with 14 free throws, she broke the MSU single-game free-throw record.
“I went to the free-throw line a lot,” Thomas said. “It’s kind of funny because obviously you’re just playing and who keeps up with points and all that. But, I got to the line again, and I was like, ‘Man, I’ve been here a lot today.’ I think we definitely wanted to take care of the mismatch because (Courtney) Moses had to start guarding me, and then I kind of got in the flow and found my way at the rim a lot.”
Led by Thomas on both sides of the ball, it was a battle of arguably the two best defenses in the Big Ten. However, it was the Spartans defense that lived up to the expectations in this matchup.
Through the first eight minutes, the Boilermakers shot just 1-for-9 from the field and the Spartans took advantage.
Led by junior forwards Taylor Alton and Lykendra Johnson, MSU busted out a 12-0 run to start the game. Alton started things off with a 3-pointer, and then Johnson took the reigns. Johnson knocked down a 3-pointer of her own that gave the Spartans a 12-2 lead.
MSU head coach Suzy Merchant said she feels like teams, including Purdue, leave themselves vulnerable when attempting to create mismatches.
“They started with their best defender on (Kalisha Keane), which was a guard,” Merchant said. “Minnesota started a totally different lineup than they are used to starting. They put a big kid on Taylor, and they play off (Johnson). I feel like maybe what people are trying to do to get a stop is working against them because we do have a lot of stuff that we run that we can just isolate the other guy.”
Johnson ended the first half with 11 points and seven rebounds, and the Spartans would go on to carry a 10-point lead, 30-20, into the locker room at half time.
When both teams emerged, the Boilermakers began to find their rhythm. As the Spartans tried to fight away with an 8-2 run, Drey Mingo kept Purdue in the game.
Thomas hit a jumper that gave the Spartans a 20-point lead — their biggest of the game at that point — and then the Boilermakers went on an 8-2 run that cut the lead to 13. It never got closer than that.
Mingo scored 18 points, and four other Boilermakers finished with double digits. Besides those five players, Purdue only had two other players score points.
For the Spartans Thomas, Johnson and senior forward Kalisha Keane all reached double digits. Johnson had 13 points and eight rebounds, and Keane tallied all 12 of her points in the second half.
The Spartans now have reached the 20-win mark and are almost a lock for the NCAA Tournament.
The team couldn’t have reached this point without the senior leadership, Merchant said.
“It’s as simple as, as your seniors go, so goes your team,” she said. “When your seniors are great players and great leaders and the hardest workers, their chemistry and their leadership is so without an ego.”
Johnson agreed with her coach and said a big difference in this year’s team is they play for each other, not just with each other.
“Last year from this year is very different, and just knowing people got your back on defense and on offense is just a good feeling all around,” Johnson said.
On their way to their 18th-consecutive home win, the Spartans forced the Boilermakers to turn the ball over 21 times, which led to 26 points.
Purdue head coach Sharon Versyp said her guards psyched themselves out by worrying about MSU’s defense.
“They’re active, they’re guardlike (and) they’re very good defensively,” Versyp said. “They’re not slow-footed. They got great, quick hands, and they got size. That’s where a lot of those turnovers were.”
Although she set a new record for MSU, Thomas still kept true to her defense and passion. After each basket — even with MSU holding a double-digit lead — the Spartans rose off the bench with Thomas leading the way.
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“Even on the court, we just all have that passion. I think even when we get an and-1, you’re just so pumped. I’m not even like, ‘I got an assist.’ I’m like, ‘She finished.’ I think just the genuine happiness of other peoples success is just infectious.”
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