INDIANAPOLIS — It wasn’t until late in the second quarter that the Spartans gave Bankers Life Fieldhouse its first floor smack. And even then, something wasn’t right.
“It certainly wasn't our best performance,” MSU women’s basketball head coach Suzy Merchant said. “I felt like it was a struggle all night to kind of get ourselves going in the right direction…”
Purdue’s defense was stifling at first — a zone press and traps past half court — but the No. 19 Spartans have seen that before. It was nothing new.
“We weren't getting stops,” senior forward Aerial Powers said. “And then offensively, we were kind of confused, all over the place, and not focused.”
MSU tallied just four assists through two quarters and trailed 32-25 at the break, but it truly was a tale of two halves. Because whatever Merchant said to her team in that locker room, it worked.
“Well, you know, at halftime, Coach got into us like she should, and just told us, you know, defensively, we weren't there,” Powers said.
Merchant let out a reluctant chuckle before telling the media what she said at halftime.
“Well, yeah, that was an interesting conversation," Merchant said. “So we just really talked about making sure we moved the ball on offense and shared the ball a lot better and processed what we see. I got into (Jasmine) Hines quite a bit because, you know, she can't just show up one game and, like, not the next. Got into a couple other people as well. But I thought they responded, you know.”
The Spartans next floor smack in the third quarter was in sync. Purdue went scoreless for 4:08 and ball movement opened up the gaps in the Boilermakers’ zone.
Hines, a graduate student and 6-foot-3 center, was fed productive touches and the assists started coming in stride.
“In the second half, you know, we really just tried to get (Hines) to kind of pin and seal and get somebody high or low,” Merchant said. “We ran a lot of different things, too, to keep 'em off balance in terms of where the double was able to come from, whether it be their 1-2-2, their 2-3, or their man, so we were just trying to give her a little more space to work from.”
The free-throw line also lost its neglect in the second half, especially for Powers, who shot 8-for-10 from the line and finished with 26 points and 12 rebounds.
“And anytime someone's having a bad game, including me, others need to pick it up,” Powers said. “...I need to pick up the slack and not complain, because once we all get on the same page, nobody's going to be able to stop us.”
The Spartans first meaningful lead came at the six-minute mark of the third quarter. Both teams played a great brand of basketball from there on out, and though MSU still trailed by one point going into the fourth, momentum surely shifted after sophomore guard Branndais Agee made a deep, confident three-pointer with five seconds remaining.
“Well, I thought I was open, and I knew we needed a shot, so I took it,” Agee said. “You just got to be confident, and that's what I am.”
The Spartans showed why they are a top-25 team in the fourth quarter. Purdue had errant turnovers, while MSU tightened up. Poise, hustle and focus was the difference.
“When we took the lead, I felt like we needed to push the lead,” Powers said. “We were playing behind the entire game. ... And we just kept fighting. And once we took the lead, you know, that's when I felt confident.”
MSU’s largest lead, which was six points, came when 1:08 was left on the game clock. And with the Spartans late surge came a 65-64 victory, advancing MSU to the Big Ten Tournament semifinals against No. 9 Ohio State.
MSU and the Buckeyes will tip off approximately 25 minutes after the first game, which is No. 5 Maryland vs. Northwestern at 3 p.m. EST. Both games will be aired on Big Ten Network.
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