Sunday, August 9, 2020

'It starts off the court': Women’s basketball embraces team mentality

With injuries and tough losses plaguing the Spartans' season, they have stayed afloat thanks to unwavering chemistry

January 30, 2020
The MSU women’s basketball team celebrates coming back against Nebraska. The Spartans defeated the Cornhuskers, 78-70, at the Breslin Student Events Center on December 31, 2019.
The MSU women’s basketball team celebrates coming back against Nebraska. The Spartans defeated the Cornhuskers, 78-70, at the Breslin Student Events Center on December 31, 2019. —
Photo by Matt Zubik | The State News

Following games that were just one month apart, players from the Michigan State women’s basketball team entered the media room.  

On Dec. 15, they walked in with high spirits after a game in which every player had the opportunity to pitch in to a blowout victory against Morehead State. On Jan. 23, the Spartans walked in disappointed and shocked after their three-game winning streak snapped in blowout fashion to Northwestern.

However, after both games — which ended with polar-opposite results — there was a constant. Each player was focused on the team above anything else. On Dec. 15, freshman forward Julia Ayrault had recorded her first career double-double, but instead of basking in her success, she commended her entire team on the win.

“It’s awesome,” Ayrault said. “That’s one of my favorite things ever, ‘cause I want everyone to get in there. When we get the energy going on the bench like that, it keeps us going too. I think that has been a really good thing for us — keeping everyone engaged, everyone excited.”

On Jan. 23, senior guard Taryn McCutcheon struggled on both sides of the ball — just as her entire team did. But she didn’t place blame. McCutcheon accepted the responsibilities she could and acknowledged the steps her team could take.

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“As leaders, we can’t play like that,” McCutcheon said. “I just have to take ownership of that and realize that as seniors and veterans, we can’t come out and play like that. ... We just have to be more consistent. It’s been a struggle for the last two years, and it’s taking a long time trying to figure it out.”

The road has not been easy this year.  

MSU women’s basketball has suffered injury after injury, sickness after sickness and has gone through several droughts without a win. Coach Suzy Merchant has had to roll out several young lineups, and those who were just role players at the beginning of the season have stepped up into starting roles.

Consistency on the court has been a problem all year — every player on the roster all the way up to Merchant would admit that. It’s enough to pull some teams apart, as players fight for minutes while the team struggles through close losses.

The Spartans have done the exact opposite.

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Somehow they are still above .500, sitting with multiple wins in the Big Ten. They have also put together NCAA Tournament caliber wins.

While they search for consistency on the court, the Spartans have had no problem keeping it off the court. With the will to not just win but to see each other succeed, these ego-less players have turned what could’ve been a disastrous season into one they can build on.

Chemistry has been the consistency and key to the Spartans’ season.

“I mean, I think every kid wants to start and play,” Merchant said. “It might not be your night, it might be someone else’s. I like the depth of this team and the chemistry of the team.”

Through the ups and downs of the season, they have only become closer.

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“It starts off the court,” senior forward Nia Hollie said. “We’re a really close team off the court. I mean, we laugh endlessly. It’ll be seven in the morning for a shoot-around and we’re talking, laughing like it’s nothing, like it’s late in the night. We go through these things every day where we see each other for three hours, so it’s not like we don’t get into it here and there. But it’s like having a sibling — but all the same age — so we’re all kind of like twins.”

As they make their way through a tough Big Ten conference, team meetings have kept the chemistry up and the Spartans on the same page.

“We really just had to step back and look at ourselves and look at the situation for what it was and discuss how we want to move forward,” sophomore guard Nia Clouden said. “I think it’s brought us closer together as a team, and we’re all on the same page now.”

The chemistry they have built off court has translated into successful games.

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“It fits on the court,” Hollie said. “You can see the chemistry and it’s still growing too, which is very nice, and you don’t get that from a lot of teams. ... It gets technical when you do add the basketball into it, but I think that it helps a ton — especially (when) we are getting into it or bickering a little bit. It helps because it shows that you’re being competitive, you want it just as much as that next person does. We fight for each other.”

The importance of maintaining a level head has been key this season, and the Spartans’ focus on team-ball instead of playing as individuals has been huge.

“As time goes on, we definitely start getting closer and closer. I think we start rooting for each other more — which is awesome,” Ayrault said. “It’s so important and it helps us so much, because when you’re rooting for each other and you want each other to succeed, it just boosts our team so much. ... We have gotten — as time has gone on — more and more of that.”

From the starters to the bench, each Spartan touches the game any way they can — from scoring to the hustle that might not show up on the stat sheet.

“For other teams to know that you’ve got a whole other five coming off the bench that could be a starting five, that’s like a monster coming at you,” Hollie said.

“There’s a lot of different ways you can touch the game other than scoring, and the beauty in that is a lot of it won’t show up in the stat sheet. But you’re doing it and it is contributing to the win, whether it is a big one, small one — it’s still contributing.”

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With a deep roster, playing time might fluctuate. Part of the chemistry on the team is understanding that a player’s role one night might not be their role the next. And whatever they’re asked to do, they do it.

“This is a team, and we have a really strong roster from top to bottom and that should be embraced and celebrated,” Merchant said. “And you know, one night, you might get 15 minutes. The next night, you might only get five.” 

Merchant said it’s an exciting place to be as a coach. 

“And I think it’s harder place for players to be, because everybody thinks they should be playing … if you buy in,” Merchant said. “You’re grateful for the experience, and have gratitude for what you can bring — whether it be four minutes, five minutes. ... Whatever your role is that day.”

Selfless play has been a huge piece of the team’s identity. Accepting their role and being flexible has helped the individuals become a collective.

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“I think (being selfless) helps a lot, because I would say most people don’t want to play with somebody who’s all about themselves,” Clouden said. “So us all being selfless and wanting each other to do good and working for each other is good. It helps our team come together as a collective.”

Through their struggles, the Spartans’ chemistry has allowed them to continuously embrace a team mentality. It has helped guide them as they encounter different obstacles during the season that could’ve gone in a far different direction.

“If it’s not you that game, it could be you next game. ... It’s bigger than you, it’s the team,” Merchant said.

“And if we keep that focus — to be a great teammate, one of our core values — I think this team has a chance to be exceptional.”

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