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Michigan State women's basketball embraces 'next man up' mentality

Leaders emerge for the Spartans as they fill in for injured veterans

January 12, 2020
Redshirt sophomore forward Mardrekia Cook (2) shoots the ball during the game against Morehead State at Breslin Center on Dec. 15, 2019. The Spartans defeated the Eagles, 93-48.
Redshirt sophomore forward Mardrekia Cook (2) shoots the ball during the game against Morehead State at Breslin Center on Dec. 15, 2019. The Spartans defeated the Eagles, 93-48. —
Photo by Annie Barker | The State News

Throughout the season, Michigan State women's basketball has been plagued by injuries. On Sunday, in a 69-52 win over Wisconsin, the Spartans had even more.

Senior guard Shay Colley, senior forward and starter Victoria Gaines and redshirt junior forward Mardrekia Cook were all inactive.

The injuries to key players and role players have forced the Spartans to fully embrace the ‘next man up’ mentality.

“I think that they have done a really really good job, they’re really coachable, they listen to the vets in practice and games," sophomore forward Tory Ozment said. "I think they are really consistent … I think that they're gonna just keep getting better, they’re kind of getting experience and the Big Ten is different than non-conference of course."

“I’m really proud of them, they’ve been really tough. It’s a really hard conference. I think they’ve embraced it really well.”

The new faces have created some struggle in terms of continuity.

“That’s the way it’s gonna have to be ... everyone gets the whole next man up," coach Suzy Merchant said. "I think the unfortunate thing is the people that went down or who aren’t playing right now have valuable experience to give that younger group, If you have younger kids go down and you have vets out there that’s different."

Although they can’t influence the game on the court at the moment, the injured players have done all they can to embrace their new roles. Gaines has gotten players in for workouts and been a vocal leader from the bench.

“(Gaines) been awesome," Ozment said. "She’s been pulling the freshman in to workout, she’ll lead them in a workout, she’ll text them whenever she thinks they need to work on something. They’re really vocal in practice, in games, on the bench, so they’ve definitely shown a lot of leadership being out.”

The results have been better at home — Sunday and in a Dec. 31 victory over Nebraska — than away from home. The lack of depth has been exposed in the first three conference away games — losses to Penn State, Michigan and Indiana.

And for the leaders still left, they’ve had to become even more of leaders. Sophomore forward Nia Clouden has only a year of experience under her belt, but Merchant relies on her heavily to lead this team.

“I think I’ve had to grow up a lot, because (Colley is) out, (Gaines is) out and (Cook is) out right now too. And they're all three vets and leaders for us and I’m one of the people with the most experience right now, even though I only have one year under my belt,” Clouden said. “Coach tells me I’m the leader for this team, so I try to be one.”

Clouden has had to step up in several ways, since so many veterans are out, she just tries to lead by example.

“I just try to set the example and lead by example. If I’m playing hard, I think that other people will want to play hard with me, and also just being more vocal and helping people out, correcting people and talking on defense and things like that,” Clouden said.

The Spartans lost a lot of experience in those injuries, but there's only one way to get new experience— to play. That is what is happening for this Spartan team and they will just have to deal with the growing pains along the way.

“We have to embrace the next man up. It's just, to me I think the unfortunate thing is the next man up has decimated our upperclassmen leaders, and that’s where you have seen our ability to stay consistent has been up and down a little because of that,” Merchant said.

“But I like our fight, our young kids are getting good experience and that’s what you want them to do.”

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