The MSU women’s basketball team kicked off a challenging four-game stretch that features three road games with a 56-46 win on Sunday at Indiana behind sophomore guard Kiana Johnson’s15-point performance.
After starting 28 games last season as a freshman, Johnson has made a habit of giving the Spartans a shot in the arm off the bench when they need it most — while typically playing starter minutes. In addition to leading MSU in scoring, the Chicago native led the team in assists for the third consecutive game, with five on Sunday, and hauled in four rebounds.
MSU took a permanent lead with 14:04 remaining in the first half on a 3-pointer by junior forward Annalise Pickrel, and once again held its opponent’s leading scorer under their season average.
The Spartans hit the road again Thursday to play at Nebraska for the first time in program history, then return home for a Jan. 27 match up with No. 15 Purdue before heading to Northwestern. MSU is 29-16 in Big Ten road games under head coach Suzy Merchant.
“We have a tough stretch,” Merchant said. “I mean, Nebraska’s a very good team. They’re playing extremely well, and it’s going to be a very hard game for us on the road, and then to follow that up this week with Purdue is a tough week. So you can’t get ahead of yourself … there’s really no gimmies in the Big Ten, that’s for sure.”
In her young career, Johnson has routinely had success against Indiana. In three starts last season as a freshman, she averaged more than five points and eight assists per game against only four total turnovers.
MSU won all three games by an average margin of 21 points per game.
Next man up
Johnson isn’t the only bench player playing a vital role for the Spartans.
Merchant said she pulled Johnson and redshirt freshman forward Akyah Taylor aside before the Indiana game and told them she would be relying on them Sunday. The Spartans have struggled with depth all season, and, at times, have shortened the rotation to seven players due to injuries and suspensions.
“Look, we need you today,” Merchant recalled. “Today’s that late January grind, I can tell you … so we really needed them, and I was really proud of Akyah and Kiana and how they stepped up at Indiana.”
In her second game back from being inactive due to illness, Taylor recorded seven points and three rebounds in 17 minutes. Her presence allows Merchant to be more flexible with lineups and substitutions to give the starters more breaks.
“She’s just a high energy kid … she’s a very aggressive player — sometimes too aggressive,” Merchant said of Taylor. “But she’s someone I like to coach because she loves to play hard, and she’s very passionate. She brings an air of athleticism to us, too, I mean she’s very athletic. And she can guard, so she really fits the mold of what we’re trying to do.”
Sophomore center Jasmine Hines leads the conference in points (9.9) and rebounds (5.2) among bench players.
Moving on up
MSU is ranked in the Associated Press poll for the first time this season following Sunday’s win, checking in at No. 25. The Spartans haven’t been ranked since the end of the 2010-11 season.
As of Sunday, the Spartans’ 4-1 record ties them with Purdue for second best in conference play, with Michigan and Penn State sharing the top spot.
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