Similar to James’ days as a Cleveland Cavalier, No. 23 graces the back of her jersey. Powers makes an impact in several statistical categories, leading the Spartans in points per game (13.3), rebounds (7.6), steals (1.7) and ranks top 5 in virtually every other category.
But when asked whether her passion and ability to stuff the stat sheet is a result of watching James’ highlights as a middle schooler, she was quick to deny it.
“I’ve had a passion for basketball since I’ve been young,” the redshirt freshman guard said. “That’s not the reason why I have passion, why I get excited or hype. I have that within myself.”
The self-determination of Powers and fellow freshman guard and starter Tori Jankoska has been a major reason why the No. 21 women’s basketball team, currently tied for first place in the Big Ten with No. 16 Nebraska and No. 8 Penn State, has seen the success it has enjoyed this season.
As the first and second-leading scorers on the team, they have shouldered a lot of responsibility in their rookie campaigns.
It hasn’t always been the smoothest ride. There are pros and cons of relying on freshmen as a major source of production, head coach Suzy Merchant said.
“We’re a team that can play three freshmen,” Merchant said, referencing Powers, Jankoska and redshirt freshman guard Branndais Agee, who provides key minutes off the bench. “It can be a little bit of a bumpy road for sure, at times.”
The Spartans lost two winnable games toward the end of January and came up woefully short against Nebraska on Feb. 8, a game that, had they won, would have put them in first place in the Big Ten.
Regardless, Powers and Jankoska have had historically good freshman campaigns for the Spartans. They’ve each had a positive impact in their own, unique ways.
Having earned four Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors, Powers’ ultimate goal for the season doesn’t seem out of reach: being named Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
“Aerial is the hardest working kid on our team, basically,” Merchant said. “We have a lot of hard workers, but she’s very driven. She sees the big picture, she’s here to win championships.”
Despite tearing the Achilles tendon in her left ankle in practice on Oct. 26, 2012, forcing her to miss the entire 2012-13 season, Powers is often the most active player on the court - drawing fouls, rebounding in traffic and creating plays.
“She’s high energy, she gets steals,” junior forward Becca Mills said. “She’s the type of player that gets stats in every category, pretty consistent.”
She’s one of the most vocal players on the team. Powers wears her emotions on her sleeve, as she high-fived fans in the front row after hitting a buzzer-beating 3-pointer against Nebraska on Jan. 9.
A testament to her work ethic has been her improvement on the defensive end of the court. Merchant said her defensive prowess was lacking earlier in the season, partially a result of missing extended court time with her Achilles injury. But she’s improved on that end of the floor by a wide margin.
Merchant said Powers simply wants to be the best player she can be.
“She’s very driven to be not only a good teammate, a good defender, but certainly the go-to player that we need to win a championship,” Merchant said. “And we need that.”
Expanding her game
Entering the season, true freshman and 2013 Michigan Miss Basketball winner Tori Jankoska had a well-deserved reputation as a sharpshooter. As a senior at Freeland High School, Jankoska averaged 30.9 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 4.8 steals to lead her team to a 22-2 record.
Unlike Powers, a starter from opening night, Jankoska initially served the role of sixth man for the Spartans, providing scoring off the bench.
Opportunity knocked for Jankoska when junior guard Kiana Johnson missed two road games against Virginia Tech and Florida State in December because of a heart infection. Merchant inserted Jankoska as the starting point guard, and she responded with two of the worst games of her career.
Jankoska shot 4-of-24 in the two losses, dishing five assists and three turnovers.
“During Virginia Tech and that stretch when (Johnson) was out and Florida State, I was not in the right mindset,” Jankoska said. “I didn’t even know how to play that position at the college level.”
After those two games, a light clicked on for Jankoska. She studied film, preparing for her next opportunity.
The opportunity came when Johnson missed a road trip to Ohio State on Jan. 26 for personal reasons. Johnson was suspended indefinitely after that game, and Jankoska has been in the starting lineup since.
She’s improved exponentially as a playmaker, having earned her first Big Ten Freshman of the Week honor on Tuesday. In the last two games, Jankoska has averaged 17.5 points, six assists and 2.5 steals.
She set career-highs with seven assists and five steals in the win versus Wisconsin last Thursday. One might not have guessed Jankoska would be the lead guard come late February, but Jankoska, who shares point guard duties with senior Klarissa Bell, has proved herself capable of taking the reins when the Spartans needed it most.
“Once it came to the Ohio State game, I felt a lot better,” she said. “I actually watched Kiana do it for the first six or seven games of the Big Ten, so I had time watching and learning what to do from her.”
With the Big Ten Tournament slightly more than a week away, the freshmen realize they have to play bigger than their experience.
“We’re just playing within the system and making sure we’re playing with our teammates,” Powers said. “It’s not much about age when it comes to us. It’s just about playing and being competitive.”