The last few weeks of practice had been tough for the women’s basketball team.
Junior guard Kiana Johnson was absent because of an infection, missing two games in the span. Senior guard Klarissa Bell missed two weeks of practice as a result of shin splints, though she didn’t miss a game. Redshirt junior center Madison Williams had been absent from the lineup after an injury scare against Temple on Nov. 26. And junior center Jasmine Hines has played sparingly in practice after returning from injury on Dec. 6.
Without the ability to build cohesion in practice, the Spartans (6-4 overall) suffered a 3-game losing streak. With the return of the aforementioned players against Oakland Sunday afternoon, the Spartans regained their early-season luster.
Johnson and Williams returned to the lineup and played meaningful minutes in the 80-62 rout of in-state rival Oakland, snapping the losing streak. Johnson, who head coach Suzy Merchant revealed was not initially supposed to enter the game prior to tip-off, dished seven assists in 10 minutes. MSU looked much sharper on both sides of the ball during Johnson’s play time, which isn’t a coincidence.
“We’re just a different team when Kiana sat down, nothing negative to Tori (Jankoska) or (Bell),” Merchant said, going on to express the advantage of having a true point guard man the offense. “We struggled to get into a flow, I think at times. She came in and played great minutes. Probably, the most productive she’s been in short periods of time out there for us.”
Redshirt freshman guard Aerial Powers finished with a game-high 21 points, 11 rebounds, two blocks and three steals, and senior forward Annalise Pickrel added 20 points, nine rebounds and two blocks, shooting 5/6 from behind the arc.
Williams blocked two shots and grabbed three boards in only six minutes. Hines had her best game since returning to the lineup, grabbing eight rebounds in 19 minutes, three offensive.
“Them coming into the game was a treat, really,” Pickrel said of Johnson and Williams. “ I know the guys have been struggling with sickness and illnesses. But for us, we just needed to learn how to be tougher.”
Oakland guard Victoria Lipscomb, who graduated from East Lansing High School with MSU senior guard Klarissa Bell, scored 12 points.
Entering the second half with a 27-26 lead, the Spartans started on a 10-2 run, taking a 37-28 lead spurred by steals by Powers and Mills and two 3’s by Pickrel. After an Oakland timeout, Powers made a strong move to the rim for a layup, and Pickrel drained another 3 to make the run 15-3 and give MSU a 42-29 lead.
MSU extended the run to 20-3 with the help of Hines before Oakland scored on a layup to snap it. Hines got involved towards the end of the run, draining three free throws and snagging two offensive boards.
Oakland began to find its offense midway through the half, trimming MSU’s lead to 12, 57-45 after a layup by Bethany Watterworth. But Johnson drained a 3 to extend the to 15, and both teams entered a media timeout after Elena Popkey committed a turnover with 7:45 remaining.
The Spartans went on a 12-2 run, and two free throws by Powers extended the lead back to 20, 67-47. Williams checked back in during the break and had a huge block on a layup attempt by Kim Bee, allowing Bell to find Pickrel in transition to extend the lead to 22.
A rare four-point play by Olivia Pope and and free throws by Amy Carlton helped Oakland trim the lead to 14. But Powers knocked down two free throws, sophomore guard Cara Miller drained a corner three and Williams blocked another shot to extend the lead to 76-57, sealing the win.
Moving forward, Merchant hopes having a full roster in practice will help the team build the chemistry they haven’t had the opportunity to. MSU will travel to Puerto Rico to play No. 14 Oklahoma State and Georgetown in the San Juan Classic on Thursday and Friday.
“You see some frustration on offense and defense because we should be in a rotation right now, and we’re not because people are… in and out (of the lineup,” Merchant said. “We’ll get there, we still have to get better every day. We need to be able to practice as a unit to get better, and that’s been some of the difficulty here in the last month.”
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