Wichita, Kan. — Sixteen teams have entered the women’s NCAA Tournament with at least 30 wins and no more than one loss – including Green Bay and Connecticut this season. All of the previous 14 teams before this season have advanced to at least the Sweet 16 and all but two reached the Final Four.
They might be the higher seed, but history might be working against the No. 4 seed Spartans (26-5 overall) when they square off against No. 5 seed Green Bay (33-1) in the second round tonight.
“They’re just extremely skilled and talented,” MSU head coach Suzy Merchant said. “I think they’re a very deep team in terms of their production. It’s impressive to watch what they do.”
Impressive might even be an understatement for a team that has only lost 16 games in the past four years under head coach Matt Bollant, who is a three-time Horizon League Coach of the Year.
The 33 wins are the most in the 38-year history of the program and although they played in a weak Horizon League, the Phoenix challenged themselves in nonconference games. The Phoenix beat Big Ten foes Wisconsin, Penn State and Minnesota, while their only loss came to the Big East’s Marquette.
Merchant said she was astounded when she looked up at the score in INTRUST Bank Arena and saw a statistic that Bollant has won more than 90 percent of his team’s games at Green Bay.
“That makes for a lot of sleeping nights I would think,” Merchant joked. “He’s probably a well-rested Division I coach, unlike the rest of us.”
Senior forward Cetera Washington might be all for nice and humble in the pre-game, but she said when her team takes the floor those two words won’t be in either team’s dictionaries.
“It’s to be an all-out war defensively,” Washington said.
This isn’t the first time the Spartans have braced themselves for an “all-out war.” Several times during the season the Spartans have used the phrase to describe an upcoming game. Each time it was as they predicted.
The Phoenix have the senior leadership, versatility and post presence to hang with the best teams. Similarly, those have been the Spartans’ advantages all season.
But Merchant said she really doesn’t see the similarities. Both teams are versatile and both have the ability to spread the floor with their bigs, but she wouldn’t call them the same team, she said. Senior guard Brittney Thomas didn’t feel the same way as her coach.
“I think the similarity ends with that we’re playing in the second round against each other,” she said.
The Spartans have their own powerhouse players in senior forward Kalisha Keane, who is averaging 16 points per game, and junior forward Lykendra Johnson, who averages 12 points and nine rebounds a game.
But both will have their hands full with the elusive offense of Horizon League Co-Players of the Year in Celeste Hoewisch and Kayla Tetschlag, as well as Julie Wotja, who averages more rebounds than both of them.
Hoewisch also won Co-Defensive Player of the Year and is a key element in running the Phoenix buzz defense — which is a zone defense that begins to apply pressure in the three-quarter-court.
The senior point guard will be covered closely by Thomas and it likely will be the matchup to watch. Hoewisch averages 13.4 points per game and leads her team in steals.
“I don’t think you’re the player of the year or the defensive player of the year by accident,”
Merchant said. “It’s a team that’s had one loss and I think with her in the lineup there’s a reason why they win.”
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