With less than a minute left in the first quarter and the game between Michigan State women’s basketball and Minnesota tied at 12, freshman Julia Ayrault didn’t just get a hand on freshman Sara Scalia’s attempted layup.
She swatted it. With conviction. Right into a row of cheerleaders sitting at the baseline.
MSU coach Suzy Merchant said she didn't consider it to be a play made by somebody in the right place at the right time.
"There's a lot of kids on our team that can block a shot," she said. "But nobody does it better than Julia because she knows exactly how to time it. And I think she sees that thing happening in slow motion."
A missed three-pointer attempt by Scalia fell right into the hands of Ayrault with 3:38 left in the game. She turned her head ever so slightly under the basket and launched it half the length of the court, over all five Golden Gophers, and right into the hands of a speeding freshman Moira Joiner for the fast-break layup.
Again, Merchant said an assist like this doesn't surprise her.
"She has a high IQ for the game," she said. "Probably the best on our team in terms of passing angles and who's open and what she sees."
And then there were the 10 points in the fourth quarter that kept Minnesota at a comfortable distance en route to a 66-54 win. Two huge triples to start Michigan State off in that same quarter, electrifying the very bench she came off of.
So much production in so little time. Where does it come from?
Ayrault said she doesn't really have an answer.
"I really don't know," she said. "I've been playing my whole life. I think just going through different experiences, playing as different people, like you learn so much about the game and I just think doing it for so long has made it easier for me to see things, I guess."
Ayrault's play off the bench against Minnesota is a big reason the Spartans are the winners of two-straight, and Merchant said this fuels the high hopes she has for her — as long as she can stay healthy.
"I went into this year watching her, I'm like, 'This kid's gonna be our starting four,'" she said. "But then she had all these ailments and issues. ... But the kid's IQ is off the charts.
"I think she has a chance to be an All-Conference player, she just has to kind of figure out the bumps, the bruises and some of the challenges that happen in this game."
It hasn't been an easy road for Ayrault this year. With sicknesses keeping her out of games or hampering her performance in them, she said that staying healthy has been more of a nuisance than anything.
"This year has been definitely ... more annoying than anything, I think," she said. "Because little things have popped up and it's like, that flu thing that went around. ... That just took a toll."
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Merchant said that Ayrault's injuries didn't just keep her out — they affected her confidence, as well.
“I think her problem has just been, you know, she’s needed to get her confidence where it needs to be from some of the injuries she had early in the season,” she said. “And now she’s starting to fight through some of that stuff, which is great because we need her and you can see what she can do.
“She can do that against anybody, really.”
Ayrault said that her coach's words meant a lot to her.
"It feels amazing because, you know, everybody calls her the 'Boss Lady,'" she said. "She's the one. ... And that's a huge confidence booster for me just to hear her say something like that. ... Because people don't just say that, so that really means a lot to me and I'm thankful that she took the time to say that."
With four games left in the regular season and the Big Ten Tournament on the horizon, it's clear that Ayrault will be looked to as a source of production for the Spartans.
However, Merchant said that she expects a lot more to come from her after this season.
"This offseason will be huge for her," she said. "I mean, she needs to spend her life in the weight room, she needs to get stronger, get her agility where it needs to be."
And if Ayrault does that?
"Sky's the limit for her."
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