Energy is everything. Senior guard Taryn McCutcheon said it best after Michigan State women's basketball's 28-point loss to Northwestern on Jan. 23. The energy the team brings can swing things by 40 points.
After a five-game skid, it looked like the Spartans were all out of the energy that started their season on such a high note and led them to several early conference wins.
In the beginning of Thursday’s game against Rutgers, it looked like it would be more of the same.
The Spartans looked like a team that was waiting to lose the entire first half. Aside from a McCutcheon three to start the game, they were flat. They were a shell of the team that went to Piscataway, New Jersey on Jan. 20 and bombarded Rutgers on their own court by 11 — both in terms of their roster depth and energy.
”Last couple games we’ve kind of hit a wall and we just sort of died a little bit,” coach Suzy Merchant said. “We didn’t have any leadership stepping up, anybody on the team saying, ‘No we aren’t going to go down like this,' put the team on our back and lets go.”
The energy came back with 2:54 left in the third quarter for the Spartans after sophomore guard Tory Ozment worked her way into the lane and found a bucket as she was shoved to the ground, slamming her elbow — but getting the foul call.
The and-one cut Rutgers' lead to single digits and had every Spartan player off the bench– even Mardrekia Cook while she held onto her teammates as she balanced with her injured foot.
“Get mad! Get mad ...” Cook said as she hobbled on one leg.
With 1:07 left in the third McCutcheon drilled a three, bringing the Spartans within three and putting an exclamation point on their 9-0 run.
The Breslin Center was electric.
Energy came swarming back to the Spartans' bench. It was everything they needed.
“I think it was a combination of both. I thought Taryn played with some emotion too when she was hitting shots and I saw (Nia) Clouden do it a little bit, Julia (Ayrault),” Merchant said. “So, the crowd really fed off of that and it was awesome.”
It had been a long time without a win. Twenty-four days in fact. McCutcheon forgot what it felt like.
”Losing is just hard, so I think for a little bit we forgot what it felt like to win and the emotion you feel when you win,” she said.
They weren’t going to let this one slip.
”I think that everybody kind of came together instead of everybody putting their heads down and being like ‘O.K. here we go again,'” McCutcheon said. “I think that everybody was like, ‘No we are not doing that today.’ We came together, played harder and pushed through all the adversity."
The Spartans carried their run into the fourth quarter, but Rutgers would find a way back.
Soon after the Spartans gained their first lead since before the one-minute mark, guard Khadaizha Sanders responded with a second-chance three and then a quick jumper.
One three-minute drought later, Arella Guirantes sunk a layup, pushing Rutgers up six.
This time, the Breslin Center wasn’t going to let this one slip, feeding energy into the players.
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“I thought there was times where we were (flat),” Merchant said, “I thought the crowd made the difference, I thought they really elevated our girls in that second half … You could hear them they were really wanting us to succeed.”
The crowd willed the Spartans back.
"The crowd got into it and we saw we had a chance and we started getting more emotion into it and we went on that run and by then we were like ‘O.K. we are not losing another game,” McCutcheon said. “That felt good.”
The Spartans fed off the crowd.
“I think the way we played with more emotion kind of got the crowd into it as well, because the last couple games we’ve been a little dead," McCutcheon said. "We’ve struggled to find energy and create that energy for ourselves."
“I think that’s what happened tonight was we were all in it together and we decided we are not losing and the crowd was like ‘Oh, this is how they are going to play today,'" she said. "So, it really brought the crowd into it. It was like a give and take for both ends.”
The energy in the Breslin let the team know that they were in it. They inspired the young players.
“I thought it really inspired our young kids,” Merchant said, “They need to hear that when they are doing well because they don’t always know if they are doing well.”
McCutcheon started a 10-0 run out with another three, with just 3:18 remaining and sophomore forward Kayla Belles brought the game within one with a pair of free throws.
What came next was a sound that has grown all too familiar to the crowd — freshman guard Moira Joiner for three. And the lead.
Clouden and McCutcheon would close it out with six straight free throws. The Spartans had snapped their losing streak. The energy was back in the Breslin.
“I think the losing streak just kind’ve got us down in a hole and so it was just a really really nice feeling to see what this team can actually do,” McCutcheon said. ”Now hopefully we got that off our back and we can start playing like we were before and playing up to our potential.”
Now with five games left and three of them in the presence of their home crowd, the Spartans have a chance to end what seemed like a disastrous season on a high note.
“That’s gonna put us over .500, that’s important to me to end the season like that,” McCutcheon said. “Especially with the tournament coming up you want to be as good as you can and get wins for confidence.”
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