Thursday, February 27, 2020

Women's hoops throttles Cougars ahead of tough stretch of season

November 20, 2017
Head Coach Suzy Merchant and the rest of the team watch from the sidelines as a player shoots the ball during the game against Oakland on Nov. 13, 2017, at Breslin Center. The Spartans defeated the Grizzlies 95-63.
Head Coach Suzy Merchant and the rest of the team watch from the sidelines as a player shoots the ball during the game against Oakland on Nov. 13, 2017, at Breslin Center. The Spartans defeated the Grizzlies 95-63. —
Photo by Anntaninna Biondo | The State News

MSU's win over Charleston was never quite close, it was 46-27 at halftime and the Spartans never did look back. The largest cheer of the night came when they eclipsed the century mark, eventually downing the Cougars 107-43.

But through the first 20 minutes of play, head coach Suzy Merchant marched up and down the sideline whilst looking frustrated.

"The first half, the entire first half," Merchant said of what bothered her from the game. "They were definitely a different team I thought in the second half. It's just not acceptable to go through motions." 

During the brief break, Merchant honed in on forward Kennedy Johnson. The senior admitted to some of her shortcomings — missed layups, some mental lapses, the like. Forward Taya Reimer didn't see the floor due to injury, thus opening up more minutes for some of the Spartan depth.

"I really got into Kennedy," Merchant said. "And it was kind of good to see her respond. This is what happens when you're a fourth-year senior, you've been around me a handful of years." 

Then, Johnson caught fire, closing the game down the stretch on a tear. At halftime, she had just five points.

By the final buzzer, though, Johnson had her fingerprints firmly smeared all over the game. She tied the team-high with 18 points, shooting 5 of 10, all while hitting eight of her 10 free throws.

"It feels good to contribute to my team, help them out," Johnson said. "Give the team some energy." 

Elsewhere, the Spartans were busy performing a balancing act — six different player scored in double-figures. They no longer have Tori Jankoska, the then-senior that shot her way to the tune of 22.6 points per game.

But instead, they've spread the ball around a little more. And then some. Of the 11 players who saw the hardwood floor, 10 of them scored at least four points.

"I think we have more firepower for sure," Merchant said. "We have more depth and some of those kids have really worked on their games in this offseason. I think it's a combination of more maturity, a better understanding of maybe what's going on." 

After her strong second half, Johnson credited her teammate, forward Victoria "Coco" Gaines, for creating some of the hype around the team. And from there, she was able to follow her lead en route to the blowout win.

"Every since I was little and started playing basketball, I was really the energizer of the team," Gaines said. "And I'm really trying to embrace it this year." 

Gaines, too, made her mark on the game, chipping in 13 points on 4 of 8 shooting from the field. She was also perfect from deep, hitting both of her 3-point attempts.

The Spartans, now 3-0 on the young season, enter a brutal stretch of their season. They'll head to Detroit for a game against Detroit Mercy on Tuesday. But then the cream of the crop — a date with national powerhouse UConn in Oregon in the PK80 Invitational.

"We've got a tough stretch coming up," Merchant said. "I just want to see us challenge ourselves a little bit and be a little more mentally and physically sharp." 

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