Monday, January 18, 2021

Preview: MSU women's hoops to start season against St. Francis

November 27, 2020
<p>Then-freshman guard Julia Ayrault (40) celebrates with the bench during the game against Oakland on Nov. 19, 2019, at Breslin Center. The Spartans defeated the Golden Grizzlies, 76-56.</p>

Then-freshman guard Julia Ayrault (40) celebrates with the bench during the game against Oakland on Nov. 19, 2019, at Breslin Center. The Spartans defeated the Golden Grizzlies, 76-56.

Photo by Matt Schmucker | The State News

It's finally happening: Basketball players everywhere are returning to the court in a feat of retribution for what was left hanging in March.

With their schedule finally being released Monday afternoon, the Michigan State women's basketball team is gearing up to take on the St. Francis (Pa.) Red Flash on at 3 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 27.

This home opener is one of five non-conference games and will kick off their long awaited 2020-21 season. This is also the 40th year of women's hoops in the Big Ten.

When asked what she was most thankful for this Thanksgiving season, Head Coach Suzy Merchant said it was the Title IX legislation, which changed the role of women's sports worldwide, giving them visibility, resources and options they didn't have before.

"I will say, I think we have a long way to go as well, but I really am proud to represent the Big Ten when it comes to their stance on women's sports," Merchant said. "We're just going to continue to march on, hold our heads high and put that product out there to win games. Hopefully the pride of our Spartan nation is behind us."

A look inside this week's opponent

While the two teams weren't physically on each other's radars in the spring, Merchant said in a press briefing Wednesday afternoon that they had been in communication prior to the schedule release and knew what was coming.

"The five non-conference opponents that we do have on our list are teams we talked to last spring about playing us this year, so they aren't really that brand new in terms of their coming to Breslin," Merchant said. "We weren't sure they were going to, one, make the trip and, two, there's still a lot of hoops we have to jump through."

Merchant said that their opponents will have to get tested upon their arrival Thursday night, as well as Friday morning before the game.

The Red Flash went 11-19 in wins to losses overall last season. They were tied for fourth in the NEC with an even 9-9 conference record to earn the opportunity to host a tournament game inside DeGol Arena.

Their Head Coach Keila Whittington is returning for her second season at the helm and told SFU Athletics that their focus throughout the pandemic has been to take it one day at a time.

"Things change, daily, for us, so we're just excited to begin talking about playing," she said.

Senior guards Jenna Mastellone, Karson Swogger and guard/forward Haley Thomas cemented themselves as the lead-by-example types last season as the top three scorers in the squad. Swogger was on top with approximately 11.5 points per game while Thomas also finished averaging double figures at 10.5 PPG.

The trio combined for seven NEC Prime Performer mentions — a list that highlights impressive weekly player statistics — and Swogger was even named both the NEC Scholar Athlete of the Year and the All-NEC Third Team.

The trio also combined for 40 double-figure scoring efforts, including four 20-point games. Thomas recorded more than 10 rebounds in four contests on her way to three double-doubles and Swogger ran a single-game, season-high of seven assists.

As for other returning members of the Red Flash, there is a total of three sophomores and three juniors. The Red Flash is welcoming five freshman to the team as well, two in-state products and three out-of-state products.

Last time on MSU hoops

The Spartans went 16-14 in wins to losses overall last season, having also been tied with an even 9-9 conference record.

The last time we saw the Spartans take the court they were a No. 8-seed, the day was March 5, the place was Indianapolis and the opponent was the Purdue Boilermakers.

The Spartans had a shaky first half, ending in a 72-63 loss that ended their season hopes of making it to an NCAA tournament.

Merchant is returning for her 14th season with the green and white powerhouse, happy to have this chance to feel at least a little bit normal for the first time in the past eight months.

Merchant said that the team has had two scrimmage exhibition games, against each other of course and have tried out the new COVID-safe stadium features like digital crowd noises.

The lower bowl has also been pushed in, for the first time ever, making more room that expected and throwing off the optics, the depth perception, of what the team is used to, Merchant said.

While there are no updates on transfer players and their waivers, Merchant said there are other girls raring to get their hands on the ball.

Sophomore center Cydni Dodd will be sitting benchside for the year due to a surgery, and sophomore guard Alyza Winston rolled her ankle over the weekend, though is still expected to play. She was participating in practice and has had a tremendous offseason.

Merchant also spoke on behalf of the other three sophomores in the class as they move up in rank.

Sophomore guard Julia Ayrault has only gotten stronger. Merchant said she's spent a lot of time working in the gym on her shot and that she's been really committed to the weight room.

"If you saw her last year compared to this year, much like on the men's side you see an incoming freshman guy and you seem them their sophomore year and there's usually a pretty significant difference," she said.

Merchant called sophomore forward Taiyier Parks someone special. She said that Parks has the skill, the power and the mobility; that she's hard to guard and contend with at times; that she's effective and she's got the knowledge and the flow of the game down pact.

"I would like to see her conditioning continue to grow a little bit," Merchant said. "Her motor, her ability to stay on the court, needs to get a little longer. She's not a deer in the headlights looking anymore. This kid is ducking in hard, wanting the ball, really understanding now. Both sides of the ball you can see confidence."

And sophomore guard Moira Joiner, with the number of minutes she's played and her experience, has been a go-to player. Merchant said she's been working hard to become a better, more vocal and consistent leader.

"All four of those kids have done a really good job improving this offseason, and I think you'll see that on the court this year," she said.

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