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Merchant hopes continued growth, leadership will guide women's basketball to another conference title in 2015

The Spartans will kick the season off on Sunday in an exhibition match against Grand Valley

November 7, 2014
<p>Redshirt freshman guard Aerial Powers attempts make a shot around Purdue forward Torrie Thornton on Feb. 2, 2014, at Breslin Center. Erin Hampton/The State News</p>

Redshirt freshman guard Aerial Powers attempts make a shot around Purdue forward Torrie Thornton on Feb. 2, 2014, at Breslin Center. Erin Hampton/The State News

Photo by Erin Hampton | The State News

After finishing the 2013-14 season with a 23-10 overall record and a share of the Big Ten conference title, MSU women’s basketball hopes to pick up right where it left off.

The Spartans return three of four leading scorers from last season, including redshirt sophomore forward Aerial Powers (13.4 points per game), sophomore guard Tori Jankoska (12.4 points per game), and senior forward Becca Mills (10.0 points per game).

Head coach Suzy Merchant has coached the team to seven straight top-three finishes within the Big Ten, and this year, a conference title is again the standard.

“For us every year, we enter the year and we want to win a Big Ten Championship and we want to go on in the postseason and have an opportunity to win a national championship,” Merchant said. “That’s what we talk about, that’s what we think about, and that’s what we prepare for every day.”

MSU is ranked No. 15 in the USA Today Coaches Poll and No. 14 in the AP Top 25 Poll. Merchant said that this preseason ranking means “absolutely zero,” as a lot of things can happen over the course of the season.

MSU was led by Powers and Jankoska last season, and those two will be expected to take on larger roles this year, according to Merchant.

“It’s a pass-the-torch year,” Merchant said. “Last year, Tori Jankoska and Aerial Powers led us in scoring as freshmen. There were a lot of things that they had to mature and get better at over time as freshman. Now we’ve passed the torch and expectations have risen, especially on the defensive end. We had upperclassmen covering for them, and now it’s their turn to cover for some of the freshman.”

The Spartans will bring in three highly rated freshman this season, with Jasmine Lumpkin, Lexie Gussert, and Kennedy Johnson.

“They all stand out in their own way,” Merchant said. “I think the kid right now who is probably making the most impact and has adjusted the quickest, in terms of pace of the game and the athleticism of the game, is Jasmine Lumpkin.”

Helping these freshmen adjust to the college game will be Mills. Mills has grown into a leadership role for the Spartans, and her “direct, very to the point” approach has translated well to the team so far, Merchant said.

“Leadership starts with one thing, you have to be able to lead yourself. And for four years, Becca has always been and set a great example. She has tremendous work ethic. She’s got great character. And she’s extremely passionate about the program and Michigan State.”

Injuries have been no stranger to the women’s basketball program in recent years, and the latest to fall victim to an ACL injury was sophomore guard Branndais Agee. She will be sidelined until January at least, and even then, a return will be questionable for her.

“That was probably the most disappointing loss I’ve had here in a long time,” Merchant said. “She was having a tremendously successful offseason. She had taken her athleticism and really worked on her skill set and honed her skills as an outside shooter and a pull-up jump shooter. It was really disappointing when she tore her ACL because she was making such great progress.”

MSU has battled adversity in the past, so overcoming another obstacle will be nothing new to the Spartans.

“You have to face adversity and it comes in a lot of different forms,” Merchant said. “This program has had a lot of ACL injuries. I think at the end of the day you still roll up sleeves and find a way and you go to work. That’s what we’ve done every year that I’ve been here, and this year will be no different.”

The Spartans will kick off the 2014-15 season in an exhibition match against Grand Valley on Sunday

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