Thursday, October 22, 2020

Women's basketball team holds 1st practice of the year, Merchant cites new and veteran players to watch

October 15, 2020
<p>Head Coach Suzy Merchant looks to the court during the game against Minnesota on Feb. 17, 2020, at the Breslin Center. The Spartans defeated the Golden Gophers, 66-54.</p>

Head Coach Suzy Merchant looks to the court during the game against Minnesota on Feb. 17, 2020, at the Breslin Center. The Spartans defeated the Golden Gophers, 66-54.

Photo by Matt Schmucker | The State News

Editor's note: This story was updated to clarify that Terri Jackson was the individual on the call with the MSU women's basketball team earlier this Fall.

After a long spring and summer with no college sports, things are starting to come back to normalcy. Yesterday, the women’s basketball team was able to host their first practice of the year. 

Before practice, Head Coach Suzy Merchant held her first media availability of the season.

“It has been interesting," Merchant said of the offseason so far. "I feel like I am on a golf cart that is not working very well. ... It has just been very bizarre.” 

One of the points of emphasis for this offseason was for everyone to get and stay healthy, not only because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also because of the injuries that plagued the team last season. 

Last January, forward Mardrekia Cook tore her Achilles tendon in practice, a devastating blow for a player averaging 6.1 points and 3.6 rebounds in her 16.6 minutes per game. Nearly 10 months later, the now redshirt senior is expected to be a full-participant in practice. 

“I thought she was going to be done to be honest,” Merchant said. “... But the day she tore it she looked right up at me and said ‘I am not going to end like this coach. I am going to come back, and I am going to write my story the way I expect to write it.'”

According to Merchant, this was Cook’s third season-ending surgery, one of which included a torn ACL. 

In addition to the incoming freshmen, the Spartans also received multiple transfers: two from Penn State, one from Hawaii and one from Ohio State. 

Redshirt junior forward Alisia Smith was a solid player at Penn State averaging 6.4 points and 5.3 rebounds in 20.9 minutes per game. 

“Smitty (Smith) can run,” Merchant said. “She is in great shape, and she really strides things out and she is extremely mobile in transition. ... She is very vocal and a mature young lady. So, I think she brings a sense of leadership and calmness because she has been through the Big Ten grind for three years."

The other Penn State transfer, is redshirt sophomore Jayla James, a younger player that may need some time before seeing significant minutes in the green and white. James appeared in 18 games as a Nittany Lion averaging 0.2 points and 0.8 rebounds per game. 

“She’s (James) a big power guard, a very good offensive rebounder," Merchant said. "So, I will tell you that I think she’s really kind of forced the action on the defensive boards and make sure we’re making contact."

Redshirt junior guard Janai Crooms transferred this year from Ohio State to MSU. Merchant said a waiver has been submitted, and they are still waiting to hear back from the NCAA on whether or not Crooms will be eligible to play in the 2020 season. 

The team also gained Lauren Rewers this offseason, a transfer graduate student from the University of Hawaii. The six-foot-four center led her team in blocked shots last year and will likely provide the same rim protection for the Spartans. 

The development of now sophomore guard Alyza Winston over the offseason has been a key standout so far by the coaching staff.

“Alyza has leaned out, dropped some weight, got herself in incredible shape," Merchant said. "She's spent a lot of time in the gym, shooting the ball just as good as anybody on our team right now."

Earlier this fall, the team had a call with the WNBA Players Association Executive Director, Terri Jackson, who is also the mother of MSU alumnus and Memphis Grizzlies forward Jaren Jackson Jr., to discuss the social injustice issues that have been circulating the country. 

“One of the things she really talked to the girls about is to really work hard to use your voice in a positive way and to never shy away from the things in the world that are not right,” Merchant said. "As student-athletes, now is the time to kind of step forward and put your mark on the world. They are going to be the ones that change this place for the better.”

The regular season begins Nov. 25. Until then, the team will continue to prepare and get healthy for whatever a 2020-2021 season may look like. 

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