It was one of those nights where there was a lid on the bucket for Michigan State women’s basketball. The Spartans (11-8, 4-4) fell to No. 22 Northwestern (17-2, 7-1), 76-48.
Following big strides in their last three games, the 28-point loss put Head Coach Suzy Merchant in shock.
"I'm in shock, I don't know whose team that was or what happened, because that's not how we've been playing," Merchant said.
"I thought we were very well prepared for this team, what they did. I felt good about the defensive and offensive game plan, and we just didn't make baskets which then allows us to let people score on us."
After a senior forward Nia Hollie jumper that put the Spartans up 7-6 in the early minutes of the first period, sophomore guard Veronica Burton forced herself to the line for the Wildcats.
Burton tied the game and proceeded to pull down a defensive rebound on the other end.
Heading down the court, junior guard Lindsey Pulliam drilled a jumper from midrange, a staple of Northwestern's play throughout the game. The jumper would give the Wildcats an 9-7 lead, and they only made it larger as the game went on.
Offense was scarce against Northwestern’s defense. The Spartans shot 35.3% from the field and missed several easy buckets from good passes — they just couldn’t get a bucket to fall or finish in close.
Missing shots and opportunities, even the Spartans starting backcourt of senior Taryn McCutcheon and sophomore Nia Clouden, the Spartans most consistent scoring outlets, couldn’t find the net. The pair shot a combined 0-10 on the night.
"You have to take ownership of that and realize that as seniors and veterans that we can't come out and play like that," McCutcheon said. "A lot of that's on us, but we just have to be more consistent. ... It's taken a long time trying to figure it out."
Turnovers added on to the Spartans offense struggles and the deficit, coughing up the ball 24 times. Northwestern was able to capitalize with 35 points off turnovers. The Wildcats closed the passing lanes for a struggling Spartan offense, garnering 19 steals, which was even more upsetting because the Spartans game plan was to take care of the ball.
Pulliam killed the Spartans on the offensive end. Making space out of thin air, she found success in the midrange and lived there. Scoring 22 points, she got the Wildcats going early and throughout the game. Burton matched Pulliam with 22 of her own.
The play of Pulliam reflected the Wildcats performance as a whole, as the ‘Cats shot a combined 47.6% from the field and dished out 18 assists. Northwestern wasn't perfect, turning the ball over 15 times themselves, but they did enough to keep Michigan State at bay.
Freshman guard Moira Joiner continued to shine for the Spartans, acting as one of their few bright spots. Following up a 20-point career high performance against Rutgers, she turned things on again with 17 points, four rebounds and two assists.
"That's the reason I appreciate Mo Joiner so much, is she competes the same in practice every single day, everytime, offense or defense. That's how she plays in practice and that's how she is as a person," Merchant said.
"She's a true freshman and I have her guarding the teams' best player. ... This kid's not only taken on their best players, but she's scoring the ball for us, assists, defending, getting rebounds, running in transition. She can't possibly do one more thing."
Joiner led the team in points, the closest Spartan to her was redshirt-sophomore Claire Hendrickson with eight points. No other Spartan broke double-digits.
When sophomore forward Kayla Belles was pulled early with foul trouble, freshman forward Taiyier Parks was able to provide production in the additional minutes. Parks scored six points on three attempts and pulled down seven rebounds.
Michigan State will look to turn things back around on Sunday Jan. 26 when they travel to Iowa City and take on another Top 25 opponent, the No. 19 Iowa Hawkeyes.
"We can't sit there and think and think what wrong, what went wrong. We’ve got to take a look at Iowa and see how we can beat them," McCutcheon said.
"Yeah, it sucks we're gonna have to look at it and see what went wrong, but after that we’ve got to move on and look at our next opponent."