You can look at this team and what could've been endlessly. What if they weren’t plagued by injury and sickness? What if they were just a little more consistent? What if they just shot the ball better or made a high percent of their free throws? Maybe they would be a shoo-in for the tournament. Maybe they’d be sitting near the top of the Big Ten.
Even with all the losses to their roster and on their record, Michigan State women's basketball has shown flashes of potential, trademarking the third quarter run and showing huge amounts of fight in very little time.
But the time for potential is over.
“Streaks like that, I’m like ‘Wow, we have a lot of fight in us,' then there’s times where I’m like ‘Who are these people, what are we doing?'" senior guard Taryn McCutcheon said. “Honestly I want to think that we are that team, but it’s based on our actions, not the potential that we have.”
The Spartans have two games left in the regular season, following a loss in their last game against Michigan. At this point it doesn’t matter how much potential they show, it’s do or die.
“We only have a couple games left, a few games left, so If we want to be that team, we can, but we have to decide that,” McCutcheon said. “I am encouraged by the fact that it’s there. I just need it to come out more because we’re not going to win games if we come out in the third quarter and play like that and just lollygag the other three quarters.”
Prior to their loss against Michigan, they were on a three-game winning streak and prior to that, a five-game losing streak. Much like the games they play, their season has been one of runs.
With two games left the Spartans have a chance to end their season with a winning record and finish the Big Ten at .500. That’s huge.
“That would be great, honestly I think we’ve been so up and down that we need to buckle down right now and win these last two games,” McCutcheon said. “It would mean a lot because I think we’ve faced a lot of adversity with some older girls going out of injuries … We are fighting, I mean I still think we have a lot in us that we’re not bringing out that maybe we don’t understand that we have.”
However, the Spartans know how to bring it out. They did against Michigan in the third quarter. To end the season they need to bring their third quarter mentality from start to finish.
“The way we played in the second half (against Michigan) is how we have to play the whole game,” sophomore forward Tory Ozment said. “Just coming out like that, starting the game like that and finishing the game like that I think is a big thing.
They have the potential to make a run, but like McCutcheon said, potential isn’t going to be enough. The Spartans will have to produce with what they have and play a complete 40 minutes. They can’t be out-toughed like they were against Michigan.
“At Michigan State, I don’t feel like you should ever get out-toughed,” McCutcheon said. “I think that’s what we were known for and that’s not what we played like.”
McCutcheon and her backcourt partner sophomore Nia Clouden are going to do their thing. They have to. As coach Suzy Merchant has said, they need to be “Batman and Batman”. With production coming from the backcourt, the key to the rest of the season lies in the front.
Consistent execution from the Spartans' bigs adds another dynamic to their team. It makes them dangerous and able to hang with any frontcourt in the Big Ten. If the Spartans make a run, the frontcourt will have a lot to do with it.
“The last few games we’ve been showing up for 40 minutes, and a big part of that has been our inside play,” Merchant said. “We’ve made a concerted effort to get more out of Kayla (Belles) and Taiyier (Parks).”
Still a shell of the roster that started this season ranked and took down teams like then-No.15 Notre Dame, the Spartans gained redshirt senior guard Shay Colley back on Sunday. Colley, a Preseason All Big Ten team selection, adds another dimension to their roster.
With their health trending up from what it used to be and the fight they showed they had left in them in the last four games, the Spartans could make themselves a dangerous team in the tournament. Playing with nothing to lose is scary for opponents far healthier than them.
But it doesn’t matter about potential anymore, as unfair as it could seem given the circumstances, the rest of the season is in the Spartans' hands and has to be based off of results.
“We need to learn to be consistent and we need to learn to play hard every quarter and every minute of every game, because we’re entirely too inconsistent and young and inexperienced,” McCutcheon said. “So we need to go into all these games thinking we’re down ten, that’s how we need to start out our games and stay focused and beat these next two teams and go into the tournament strong.”