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Powers, Jankoska will be critical for Spartan women's basketball in battle of top freshmen

March 24, 2014
<p>Redshirt freshman Aerial Powers reacts to a free throw attempt March 23, 2014, during a game against Hampton at Carmichael Arena in Chapel Hill, N.C. The Spartans defeated the Pirates, 91-61. Erin Hampton/The State News</p>

Redshirt freshman Aerial Powers reacts to a free throw attempt March 23, 2014, during a game against Hampton at Carmichael Arena in Chapel Hill, N.C. The Spartans defeated the Pirates, 91-61. Erin Hampton/The State News

Photo by Erin Hampton | The State News

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. —Come March, a player might still be tagged an eligible freshman on the roster, but after playing in 30-plus games, they might as well be called a sophomore.

For No. 5 seed MSU and No. 4 seed North Carolina, some talented rookies are closer to seasoned veterans and true game-changers.

Both the Spartans and Tar Heels have seen exceptional play out of freshmen this year, creating a recipe for what could be the most intriguing matchup in the second round NCAA tourney game on Tuesday night.

“North Carolina and us included both have had significant impacts with our freshmen classes,” head coach Suzy Merchant said on Monday. “I don’t really compare them necessarily, but I certainly know we wouldn’t be where we are at without their success, and our team’s success is included in that, and I’m sure North Carolina is ... the same way.”

Freshmen guards Ariel Powers and Tori Jankoska average a combined 26.1 points as two of the top three leading scorers for MSU. Powers went off in MSU’s first-round matchup against Hampton, scoring 26 points and snagging 18 rebounds. Jankoska also was solid, finishing with 11 points herself.

But the two stellar rookies of MSU will have their work cut out for themselves on Tuesday, going up against two other Tar Heel freshmen guards in Diamond DeShields and Allisha Gray, who have been recognized with awards both in the ACC and nationally.

DeShields, who was named National Freshman of the Year, leads North Carolina in scoring, averaging just under 18 points per game. Gray is second on the team in scoring with an average of 14.2, giving the duo a combined 32.1 points per game.

Merchant said the North Carolina freshman class also plays tough defense, pointing directly at DeShields as a great two-way player.

Powers most likely will be paired up on DeShields throughout the game, and understands the challenge at hand.

“I know she’s a really good player,” Powers said. “We just have to contain her and make sure she doesn’t go off on us ... when we play her.”

Powers was able to hold Hampton’s leading scorer, Malia Tate-DeFreitas, to four points on Sunday, forcing her to finish 1-for-15 from the field.

On the other side, Powers will be a target for the Tar Heels.

North Carolina associate head coach Andrew Calder said Powers’ performance in the first round was impressive and she can be a game-changer in the second round.

“She’s a tremendous athlete and basketball player,” Calder said. “We’re going to focus on her — she does a great job either shooting the basketball or driving the basketball to the basket.”

The NCAA Tournament second round matchup between MSU and North Carolina will tip at 7 p.m. on Tuesday at Carmichael Arena. The game is set to air on ESPN2.

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