The Michigan State Spartans’ (21-12, 9-9 Big Ten) hope for a run in the NCAA Tournament may have been dashed by Notre Dame (32-3, 14-2 ACC) in the second round, March 25, but the Spartans are on the verge of greatness according to coach Suzy Merchant.
“I think when the dust settles a little bit, people can see there’s a light at the end of the tunnel … we’re not that far from where we need to be,” Merchant said.
During the 91-63 defeat, the Spartans showcased some of their underclassmen as a prelude to the future of the women’s basketball program. Sophomore forward Sidney Cooks played significant minutes in both NCAA Tournament games and had 38 points and 17 rebounds in the Spartans’ two-game run.
“She was very instrumental for us,” Merchant said. “She has a lot of talent and skill … she can shoot the three, she can get to the rim and she can certainly score the ball.
“It was really good to see her put these games back-to-back for us. We definitely needed her in the Central Michigan game and certainly to see her do this against (Notre Dame) was fun. The future looks bright; I thought her and Kayla (Belles) would make a great (pair).”
Belles, a freshman forward, played 14 minutes against the Fighting Irish and scored 10 points, but has not seen many minutes off the bench due to injury this season. Freshman forward Tory Ozment, also battling through injury, had eight points and one steal in the same game.
“We knew we were going to play Kayla more in this game because of their size and power and we felt that she could handle it,” Merchant said. “Tory has been coming off another injury and she was never in the best shape. In the past week … she could get up and down the floor, she was hitting her shots. She did a great job. Her future’s bright as well.”
The Spartans have struggled all season with injuries, but had some big wins, including a 15-1 record at home, tying the school record for most home wins on Feb. 27 after defeating Penn State, 57-48. Inside of the impressive home win record, MSU upset three ranked teams at home, building their resume to make the Dance.
On Dec. 9, the Spartans, led by a big three-pointer by Allen with 34.7 seconds left, defeated No. 3 Oregon, 88-82 to complete the first big upset this past season. On Dec. 30, the No. 16 Iowa Hawkeyes came to town and expected to dominate the Spartans. Iowa forward Megan Gustafson had 30 points, but the Spartans held on to defeat Iowa 84-70 in the Big Ten opener.
No. 9 Maryland visited East Lansing Jan. 17, and were surprised by MSU’s aggressive perimeter defense against Big Ten Freshman of the Year (Coaches) guard Taylor Mikesell, holding her to one made three-pointer and 12 points. The Spartans, led by Allen’s 16 points and four rebounds, defeated the Terrapins 77-60.
The Spartans also swept in-state rival Michigan, first Jan. 27 at the Crisler Center, 77-73, then on senior day Feb. 24, 74-64.
Although Allen would finish her career as a Spartan with the second-round loss to Notre Dame, she had quite the career in green and white.
“I’m just so grateful to have picked to come to this university and played in the Spartan uniform for the past four years,” Allen said after the March 25 defeat. “I’m sad to go, but I know all my teammates are great people.
“They work so hard and they’re going to do great things in life. I’m just very sad but very grateful for the opportunity to be around great people, a great city with great fans.”
Allen became the 27th Spartan to reach the 1,000 career point milestone Feb. 17 against the Nebraska.
“I was so happy for her this year, some of the success she had,” Merchant said. “I know she wished she would’ve been able to sustain it … just to watch her come off the court so many times each year with that smile and joy, knowing she left everything out there ... she’s a class act.
“Whether she played three minutes as a freshman or started every game, it wouldn’t have mattered. She made a commitment to Michigan State, she was all in, she knew who she was.”
The Spartans look to recover in the offseason and start the preseason with a strong and healthy roster, as they will only lose Allen.