15 minutes before the opening tip against Illinois Wednesday night, MSU announced Kiana Johnson had been suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules. The No. 24 women’s basketball team (16-7 overall, 8-2 Big Ten) weathered a late run by the Fighting Illini and left Champaign, IL with a 69-53 victory.
With no word on when Johnson will be back, it appears the Spartans will face more games without the junior guard. That journey will continue on Saturday as MSU will face No. 22 Nebraska (16-5 overall, 6-3 Big Ten) on the road.
The Spartans have struggled with Johnson’s absence in previous games this season. They dropped three consecutive games in early December as Johnson battled a heart infection for two of them. They lost two straight at home in January when Johnson went through a slump, shooting a combined 2-of 20 from the field in both losses.
But since then, it appears MSU has adjusted. Freshman guard Tori Jankoska has been a major reason why.
Following her slump, Johnson missed the road trip against Ohio State for personal matters. Jankoska stepped up in Johnson’s absence, tying her career-high with 25 points and knocking down five 3-pointers.
Jankoska started over Johnson the following two games against Wisconsin and Purdue, both victories. Jankoska played well in each game, posting 12 points and six rebounds against the Badgers and 15 points, six rebounds, six assists and three steals in 34 minutes of action against the Boilermakers.
Jankoska was even better in the win over Illinois, scoring 22 points on 8-for-11 shooting.
With details scant on Johnson’s absence and her role on the team moving forward, the starting job appears to be Jankoska’s to lose. MSU is 6-0 this season when Jankoska scores at least 19 points, a sign that the Spartans can thrive when Jankoska’s shoot-first approach is making a positive effect on the scoreboard.
MSU also will need another strong defensive effort from senior forward Annalise Pickrel, who did a good defensive job on Nebraska All-American senior forward Jordan Hooper during the last meeting. Hooper had 21 points on 22 shot attempts and eight boards on Jan. 9, when the Spartans upset then-No. 16 Nebraska at Breslin Center, 70-57.
MSU’s 5-0 start in conference play on the road is the best in program history, and its 8-2 record ties the best start to a Big Ten season. The Spartans have been stellar away from Breslin Center, outscoring opponents by a margin of 15.6 points.
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