For the first time in school history, the No. 11 MSU women’s basketball team locked down the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, and its reward is a potential showdown with two of the conference’s best players and four teams it has struggled with this season.
In the first round, the Spartans will face the winner of Minnesota vs. Northwestern, two teams the Spartans had trouble with because of their size and power beneath the basket. The Golden Gophers were well on their way to upsetting the Big Ten champions before an epic collapse where they allowed MSU to go on a 26-2 run. The Wildcats became one of two teams this season to take a lead into halftime against the Spartans at Breslin Center.
“Both are very big and powerful and physical inside, so that presents a challenge for us,” said MSU head coach Suzy Merchant at her press conference Monday morning. “As you know, we’re not a big power type (of team).”
After a four-way tie for third place, Michigan was rewarded the No. 3 seed with Iowa, Ohio State and Wisconsin earning the next three seeds in that order. Therefore, No. 2-seed Penn State and the Wolverines — teams that MSU swept through — sit at the opposite end of the bracket.
If the Spartans survive the first round, it will be the winner of Iowa vs. Ohio State in the next game, which combined to give the Spartans three of their losses.
All season Merchant has stressed there is no separation in the league this season, which is why she believes her team needs to go down to Indianapolis and play like the outright champions they are.
“We need to practice for the next two days and mentally prepare like champions,” she said. “We need to go out there and expect championship effort.”
Although she’s mixed about having to compete in the conference tournament, one thing Merchant said she loved was giving her players a taste of the “survive and advance” atmosphere before the NCAA Tournament.
“It is a good prep for the postseason March Madness time, where if you lose, you’re done, and the pressure of that, to be able to kind of prep your kids for that next round in March, is something that we need to make sure we’re on top of,” she said.
Freshman Annalise Pickrel and redshirt freshman Kelsey Smith will be crucial if the Spartans are going to make a run in any tournament.
With junior forward Lykendra Johnson frequently getting herself into foul trouble, the freshmen likely will see more playing time. After a first half at Minnesota where Johnson only could play for about four minutes, the Golden Gophers held a 24-11 rebound advantage over the Spartans.
Merchant said if you asked her Sunday if the two were tournament ready, she would have said no. Recently, she has seen signs that they can play with the best.
“(Pickrel’s) situation is she’s a three, (and) we’re playing her at the post, and she’s like a wet noodle,” Merchant said. “She’s fast as heck and athletic as heck, but she’s not a big, strong, thick kid … (Smith) is someone who could really play behind people and push off and be a factor in the power game, so we look to both of those kids to try and help us a little bit.”
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