The pandemic has made a lot of things extremely complicated, but perhaps nothing more than college sports and transfers.
Michigan State women’s basketball and their Head Coach Suzy Merchant brought in four transfers this offseason. Janai Crooms, an Ohio State transfer, had already received her eligibility part way through the season as well as Hawai’i transfer Lauren Rewers.
Despite Crooms and Rewers making their way onto the floor, Alisia Smith and Jayla James, who both transferred from Penn State, had not received their eligibility.
In the midst of Big Ten football’s championship week, Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren made a call to Merchant saying that they would look into her two Penn State transfers being able to play this season.
With just 28 minutes to spare before tipoff against Oakland, Michigan State got the call that they were eligible to play.
“We have been waiting and waiting and waiting it feels like,” Michigan State sophomore guard Julia Ayrault said. “Today to get that news — it was actually close to game time that we got the news — everyone in the locker room was so excited. It’s just great additions, and we’re so excited to just get a little deeper. It’s awesome for us, and they’re both amazing players and I can’t wait to see what they do this year. They’re going to tear it up.”
Smith and James had been waiting for this moment to finally come, and once it did, it meant the world.
"I had a lot of jitters, when they told me I was just trying to calm myself down because I know when I'm jittery, I don't really play too well," Smith said. "It was just a moment of excitement. I'm just happy to be out there and play with my team."
Those jitters became a distant memory for Smith as she racked up nine points in 14 minutes.
Merchant had been looking for a player like Smith for a while. Smith, in her 14 minutes, showed a bit of everything as she ran in transition for easy buckets, stretched the floor with midrange jumpers and played solid defense in the post.
With Taiyier Parks dealing with knee issues and Kendall Bostic and Rewers continuing their adjustment to the team, Merchant got exactly what her team needed going into Big Ten play.
“I think Smitty (Smith) brings to me leadership, toughness," Merchant said. "She’s got a great motor as you can see her run the floor. She’s absolutely a problem in transitioning the way we play. She’s long. She’s lanky. She really knows the game. She’s been doing this a long time.”
James only got about seven minutes of action against Oakland. In that time she scored two points and brought in three rebounds. Merchant likes what she brings to the team as someone who can play multiple positions.
“Jayla is like that big guard,” Merchant said. “I didn’t know we would get both of those kids. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen with the transfer rule. I think we have more guard depth than we do post depth depending on who’s feeling okay and what kind of injuries we have. So, Jayla is in a position where I feel like she can just continue to build her confidence and get out there and do what she needs to do.”
Both James and Smith came to Michigan State together from Penn State after playing a couple seasons together. Their relationship is a strong one and also one of mentorship.
“We’re very close,” Smith said. “Jayla, I love teaching her because I’m older than her. I think she learns a lot from me, and I enjoy teaching her. She’s learning, and she’s going to be another spark for us later in the season.”
Smith, coming out of high school, chose the Nittany Lions despite growing up in the East Lansing area and playing high school basketball for Waverly Community Schools in Lansing. When she decided to enter the transfer portal, the decision was an easy one.
“It feels good to be a Spartan and to be able to play at home,” Smith said. “I know coming back from break, my parents will be able to come to the games I think, so it feels really good. I have a great support system here.”
With this new depth in her frontcourt, Merchant is off to her best start since 2012-2013 at 7-0 and looks to continue that streak heading into Big Ten play.
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