Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Column: This Michigan State women's basketball team won't be remembered for wins and losses

Michigan State women's basketball's adversity will be remembered above their 16-14 record

March 12, 2020

When remembering Michigan State women’s basketball’s 2019-20 season, remember this first: It’s Senior Day and senior guard Taryn McCutcheon just broke the all-time assists record on a pass to senior forward Nia Hollie. Seniors Shay Colley and Victoria Gaines subbed in earlier in the game. 

Gaines hadn’t played in two months and Colley had only been back for two games, but both got their chance to kiss the Spartan head at midcourt. Before the clock expired on the Spartans’ fifth victory in six games, following a five-game losing skid, it was McCutcheon’s turn to kiss the Spartan head. 

McCutcheon bent down to follow the Spartans’ tradition and paused. Four years prior, she came in with this senior class. Four years before she spoke up on her experience with bullying before coming to East Lansing, four years before she made that trip to half court, she was a freshman telling coach Suzy Merchant she wanted to change the world.

She bent and kissed the Spartan head.

Resilience. 

That’s the only word you should be allowed to use when you describe the Spartans’ season. 

When you remember this season, it won’t be for a Big Ten Championship, because they lost in the first round to Purdue. It won’t be for a trip to the NCAA tournament — their 16-14 record wasn’t enough to get them in. The Spartans’ season won’t be remembered by wins and losses. It can’t be. It will be remembered by how many times they were hit, seemingly to the point of no return, and got back up.

There were high hopes going into the year, a ranked Spartan team with senior leaders McCutcheon, Colley and Gaines. They started out 5-0, taking down a then-No. 15 Notre Dame during the run.

Soon, injuries plagued them. Colley and Gaines faltered in and out of the lineup for the next month and a half. 

Colley saw her last real action for nearly two months on Dec. 28 against Indiana, and the same day Gaines played her last minutes, aside from subbing in for Senior Day to kiss the Spartan head. 

The Spartans fell out of the Top 25.

In the heat of the Big Ten schedule and in the middle of a five-game skid, redshirt junior forward Mardrekia Cook tore her Achilles tendon during practice.

The injury was on par with the luck her team had this season. They couldn’t catch a break.

At times, it was hard to put five healthy players on the court for the Spartans. But during their struggles, something else was happening.

Freshman guard Moira Joiner found herself in the starting lineup and excelling, guarding the best guards in the Big Ten and holding her own. Defining hustle, Joiner gained leadership and game experience. 

Next to Joiner, freshman forward Julia Ayrault came on strong. Through sickness, Ayrault produced for the Spartans and at times showed how high her ceiling was.

With Gaines out, freshman Taiyier Parks and sophomore Kayla Belles rose as post-players capable of handling the load. The duo was led by Hollie, who was always a vocal leader, but got the opportunity to see more minutes in her senior year.

Sophomore guard Nia Clouden showed again she was a prolific scorer. At times inconsistent, Clouden was relied on heavily throughout the course of the year.

Clouden drilled buzzer beaters and filled an even bigger role after injuries. The sophomore guard was forced to act as a veteran and didn’t let the Spartans down.

During all their struggles, the Spartans embraced a team mentality, and when injuries happened, it was “next man up.” A five-game losing streak turned into winning five of their last six regular season games. After all the injuries and struggles, the Spartans still bounced back above .500.

All the while, the Spartans were led by McCutcheon, who played with a broken finger for nearly two months. She refused to sit out, leading the team, cementing her name as a Spartan great. McCutcheon eclipsed 1,000 points before she broke the all-time assist record.

In their first game of the Big Ten tournament, the Spartans trailed Purdue by 15. Led by McCutcheon and Colley, who realized this could be their last game in the green and white, they hacked the lead down to just six.

They didn’t go down easily, as it had been all season.

A shell of the team that started the year, they managed a winning record and a .500 record in a Big Ten conference that has nearly eight tournament bids.

The 2019-20 team won’t go down in the record books as a Big Ten champion, nor will they see a postseason berth into the NCAA Tournament.

But if you read between the stats, behind the 14 losses and into each player, you will see resilience. That is the only way to measure this team

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