Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Great Moments in MSU sports history: 2009 women's basketball team upsets top-seeded Duke

An improbable collision between predecessor and successor turned into a great moment for MSU

March 31, 2020
Then-junior forward Aisha Jefferson, right, celebrates the Spartans' comeback win against Middle Tennessee State University during the first round of the NCAA Championship game Mar. 22, 2009. The Spartans won, 60-59. State News file photo. Design by Daena Faustino.
Then-junior forward Aisha Jefferson, right, celebrates the Spartans' comeback win against Middle Tennessee State University during the first round of the NCAA Championship game Mar. 22, 2009. The Spartans won, 60-59. State News file photo. Design by Daena Faustino. —

Michigan State has cancelled all sports activities as our community deals with the COVID-19 crisis. The State News is looking back at some great moments in Michigan State sports history. Soon, we’ll be back to a world with sports, but for now, the past will have to do.

Today, we’ll be looking at the 2009 NCAA Women’s Tournament second round game between Michigan State and Duke.

We’ll be compiling these moments into a bracket with the MSU community voting on the best one, starting on April 1 via Twitter.

Date: March 24, 2009.

Venue: Breslin Center, East Lansing, Michigan.

Matchup: No. 9-seeded Michigan State vs. No. 1-seeded Duke.

The background: In Suzy Merchant’s second season as head coach, Michigan State started a mediocre 6-4 and battled back in Big Ten play to post a 20-11 regular season record. Aisha Jefferson and Allyssa DeHaan were the leading scorers on a deep team that typically played good defense and prided themselves on their rebounding prowess in one of the toughest conferences in the nation.

Michigan State floundered in a 56-50 first round loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament, but their resume earned them further postseason play. The Spartans were selected as a nine-seed in the Berkeley Region of the NCAA Tournament, Merchant’s first ever appearance as a coach.

To make things even sweeter, schools could put in financial bids at the time to host the opening rounds of the tournament. Michigan State’s bid was successful and the team was set to host two first-round games and one second-round game in their section of the region, an ideal situation for a team that thrived at home.

There was a familiar face in the Berkeley Region, however.

Joanne P. McCallie took the Spartans to unprecedented heights in her seven years as head coach, the pinnacle being the magical 2005 run that saw McCallie earn AP Coach of the Year honors after her MSU team bulldozed through the tournament to fall one win short of the national title. With two tournament appearances in as many seasons after, McCallie was primed to be a legend in a community that reveres its coaches as much as its players.

Alas, It was not meant to be. McCallie left after the 2006-2007 season to become the head coach at Duke. The ex-Spartan picked up right where she left off with a 25-10 record and Sweet Sixteen appearance in her first season and now, with future WNBA players Chante Black and Abby Waner headlining her roster, Duke was primed for an even deeper run as the one-seed in the Berkeley Region. It was a unique act of seeding that offered McCallie the chance to coach a game at — and against — her former school.

Merchant said her team didn’t let this opportunity go unnoticed.

“I remember we were over in the football building, and they did the selection show,” Merchant said. “And, as things started to wind down, you could tell where it was going, and you could see the look on these kids’ faces. Quite honestly, they couldn’t wait for the game.”

Getting to the second round was not a given, however. At 28-5, Middle Tennessee boasted Alysha Clark, the nation’s leading scorer, and was far from a team to be glossed over. In fact, Merchant said that she and her team wound up being more worried about Middle Tennessee than Duke while preparing for the tournament.

“I wasn’t as worried about Duke as I was (Middle Tennessee State),” Merchant said. “And I think our players felt that way …. I don’t think they were as worried about Duke as they were about Middle Tennessee because I think they knew that if we got that one, there would be no stopping them the next game.”

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The Blue Raiders proved to be worth the worry, as Michigan State barely squeaked out in a 60-59 nailbiter that came down to Mia Johnson’s go-ahead three-pointer with 1:10 left in the game. Meanwhile, McCallie received a less than enthusiastic response at her old stomping grounds as the Blue Devils demolished Austin Peay 83-42, setting up a dream matchup at the Breslin Center.

The game: Regardless of the history between McCallie and her old team, Duke was still the overwhelming favorite heading into the second round. Going off point averages alone, the Blue Devils (72.1 points per game) would’ve been spotted roughly nine points over the Spartans (63.5 points per game) in their East Lansing showdown.

History wasn’t on Michigan State’s side either. Only one top seed, the 2006 Ohio State Buckeyes, had lost in the second round of the women's tournament in the previous 15 years.

And when the Spartans turned it over on the first possession and Waner silenced the home crowd with a three immediately after, nobody could be blamed for counting Michigan State out that early. After all, this was Duke, one of the nation’s top programs.

But things changed quickly. Duke went scoreless for the next four minutes as Michigan State grinded on the defensive end, a byproduct of what Merchant said was a newly implemented zone defense.

“We went zone the whole game and we literally gave up the high post shot,” Merchant said. “We just said ‘we’re gonna give that up,’ (and) keep Alyssa DeHaan, she was six (feet) nine (inches) back at the basket.”

“They’re not going to make enough of those for us to (not) win,” she said.

It wasn’t just schematic adjustments that powered that defensive effort either. The Blue Devils turned the ball over constantly, buckling under the strain of defense that was overbearing at best and downright physical at worst. Hands came too close, elbows flew, and as MSU mounted a 14-4 run, the home crowd only got louder and louder.

After all, this was Michigan State.

The Spartans led 25-20 at the half, an upset in and of itself. However, Duke proved that they weren’t going down without a fight as play resumed.

After tying the affair early in the second half at 31-31, Karima Christmas traded jumpers with Mia Johnson as the game’s momentum shifted with each possession. Black wasn’t her typical All-American self that day, but Jasmine Thomas produced enough to keep Duke always within at least four points of their adversaries.

And when Joy Cheek tied the game for Duke, 46-46, with 7:32 left in the game, it looked as if this game was destined to go down to the final seconds, the victory going to whoever made the last shot. It’s where legends were made, underdogs toppled giants and what March Madness had proven itself to be all about.

Surely that would be the case here, right?

It was far from it. Michigan State, against all odds, held Duke to zero made field goals in that final seven and a half minutes. Duke scored only three more points off free throws to stumble to their season-low while the Spartans grew their lead all the way to 14.

Lykendra Johnson topped off the 63-49 shocker with a pair of free throws as the crowd, featuring Mark Dantonio, Tom Izzo and the men’s basketball team, could barely contain it's joy. Merchant said that the crowd at the Breslin that day was different than anything she had seen before in her then-young career at Michigan State.

“We always have a good crowd but there was a different energy,” Merchant said. “There’s no question about that in that gym that day. I think that crowd was a little more boisterous and a little more aggressive (than they usually are.)”

McCallie, after suffering through a cascade of boos and taunts in her two-game return to the Breslin, said that the credit should go to Michigan State after their dominating performance.

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“We lost our composure,” Merchant said. "We played very poorly and if you play poorly, you have to give the other team credit."

As for Merchant? Despite a set of crucial adjustments, she put the win all on her team, too.

“That was a player’s game,” Merchant said. “I mean, we put a game plan in and they executed, but at the end of the day, that was a game we weren’t going to lose. ... That’s the most determined group of players in any game I’ve ever walked into in my coaching career.”

And on that day, no player represented that determination more than Mia Johnson.

Johnson was no stranger to adversity. Originally a transfer from Saint Louis University, she had made a big impact in her sophomore year at MSU, but a torn ACL derailed her junior season and her play wasn’t the same after. Injury turned to insult in Jan. 2009 when Johnson was benched as uncertainty clouded the rest of her senior season.

Another unfortunate injury brought Johnson back to the forefront of Spartan basketball. Brittney Thomas, Michigan State’s starting point guard, suffered a torn ACL in February and somebody had to step up and replace her. Johnson played out of position and filled in admirably down the stretch, but it was her performance against Duke that Merchant said she always thinks of first.

“I’ve never seen a kid play with that kind of toughness (and) emotion,” Merchant said. “Out of position, (she) did whatever it took. She was so spent after the game, she needed two IVs.”

Johnson finished the day with 17 points in the ultimate redemption game, the highest total of any player on either team. Eleven years later, Merchant said she hasn’t seen any effort come close to Johnson’s final game in East Lansing.

“I mean, that kid gave everything she had, and I’ve had a lot of kids give great effort and been amazed by some of the moments that we’ve had,” Merchant said. “But that sticks out to me. I’ve never seen anybody give that kind of effort that needed literally medical attention immediately after the game.”

A once-in-a-lifetime effort to make a once-in-a-lifetime upset that much better.

The aftermath: Michigan State’s tournament run came to an end in the Sweet Sixteen in a tight 69-68 loss to Iowa State. To this date, it’s the furthest the women’s team has advanced in the NCAA Tournament throughout Merchant’s tenure at MSU.

McCallie and Merchant remain at their respective schools to this day and have led their teams to a combined 15 tournament appearances since their fateful meeting in 2009.

Merchant said that the energy her team showed that day is unrivaled in all her years since.

“I’ve won a couple championships too, you know what I mean?” Merchant said. “So it’s not like I’ve never felt that. But I’m saying top to bottom, that energy …. was something we can’t replicate.”

Merchant added that the history between both men’s and women’s basketball programs made the feat that much better.

“I think there’s a lot of history in Duke and Michigan State basketball on the men’s side and certainly on the women’s side with that game,” Merchant said.

“Duke and Michigan State have had great battles over the years, you know, so we wanted that,” Merchant said. “We wanted to come out with that one on top.”

That they did.

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