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MSU women's basketball faces No. 6 Notre Dame

November 11, 2013
	<p>Freshman guard Branndais Agee watches as Grand Valley State pushes the ball up the court during the game against Grand Valley State on Nov. 3, 2013, at Breslin Center. The Spartans defeated the Lakers, 91-47. Khoa Nguyen/The State News</p>

Freshman guard Branndais Agee watches as Grand Valley State pushes the ball up the court during the game against Grand Valley State on Nov. 3, 2013, at Breslin Center. The Spartans defeated the Lakers, 91-47. Khoa Nguyen/The State News

Photo by Khoa Nguyen | The State News

As the men prepare to take on top-ranked Kentucky, Suzy Merchant and the No. 20 MSU women’s basketball team will face its own challenge Monday night.

The Spartans will open their season against No. 7 Notre Dame at 7 p.m. in South Bend, Ind.

The tough test against a Final Four team from a year ago will be great opportunity for MSU to be tested and see where MSU stands.

“I’m ready to go down there and compete in the game,” Merchant said. “That’s kind of where it starts, we didn’t schedule the game to go down there to see where we’re at, we scheduled the game to go down there and prove to people, we’re a very good program ourselves and can compete and win games.”

The Spartans, who return much of their lineup from last season, will be led by senior captains Klarissa Bell and Annalise Pickrel, as well as junior point guard Kiana Johnson.

Although they do return much of its playing rotation, this year’s squad will be more offensive-minded with the addition of three freshmen who are able to score — redshirt freshmen guards Branndais Agee and Aerial Powers, and freshman guard Tori Jankoska.

“We’re a little more athletic, we score more, we’re high energy,” junior forward Becca Mills said. “Obviously it’s a different team every year. Last year, we were more of a nitty-gritty tough defensive team and this year, we’re very athletic, it’s a different type of defense we play especially with the new rules.”

The new rules created by the NCAA on both the men’s and women’s side state a defender can’t keep a hand or forearm on an opponent, put two hands on an opponent, continually jab by placing a hand or forearm on an opponent or using an arm bar to impede the progress of the dribbler.

Despite the loss of senior Skylar Diggins, who was a three-time All-American at Notre Dame, the Irish return seniors Ariel Braker, Natalie Achonwa and Kayla McBride. All three have led Notre Dame to a Final Four each of their first three years in South Bend.

McBride is the returning leading scorer with 15.8 points/game. Achonwa also scored 13.9 points/game.

“It’s a chance to prove ourselves, as a team we’re overlooked sometimes and I think we can compete with those teams at the highest level,” Mills said. “This a good chance to go out and set the statement early for the season.”

Despite the two preseason victories against Ferris State and Grand Valley State, Johnson said it will be a different atmosphere facing one of the best women’s basketball programs in the nation.

Notre Dame has been to every NCAA Tournament since 1996, including five Final Four appearances.

“The intensity is different, the energy we have to bring will be different, the focus to detail will have to be different and we just have to play defense,” Johnson said.

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