Heading into the holiday, Michigan State head coach Suzy Merchant felt that her team was flat in their performance against Northern Illinois on Sunday. Looking to head into Big Ten play with momentum, the Spartans defeated the Oakland Golden Grizzlies 94-56 on a strong second-half performance.
Merchant came into Tuesday’s game against Oakland with a clear mission to get rest for her stars and get experience for her depth. In the first quarter alone, Merchant played 10 of her players.
One of those 10 players was a new face for the Spartans in Penn State transfer Alisia Smith, who was declared eligible along with Jayla James, who also transferred from Penn State to Michigan State.
Smith and James were approved by the Big Ten at the last minute, 28 minutes before tipoff according to Merchant. With the anticipation mounting, Smith said she had to shake off the jitters to go out and play.
"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."
Smith was bale to rise above the pressure, and made an instant impact in the first half, filling a role the Spartans desperately needed as a 6'3" forward who could stretch the floor a bit. In the first half, Smith scored seven points.
However, it wouldn’t be the holiday season if Oakland basketball wasn’t causing problems for Michigan State basketball.
The deep rotation for the Spartans had a tough time getting into a rhythm early, as the Golden Grizzlies forced 13 turnovers in just the first half with starting point guard Nia Clouden on the bench due to foul trouble. On behalf of those turnovers, Oakland was able to remain within single digits for the majority of the first half.
The Spartans began to pull away though late in the second half as guard Alyza Winston began to let it fly from deep, something that Merchant had pleaded with her to do in their previous matchup.
With Oakland within six, Ozment rose up and snatched an offensive rebound and turned around to find a wide-open Winston to hit her first three of the night to push the lead to nine.
Winston would be found again by her teammate Moira Joiner for another easy three to push their lead to 14. The Spartans led by 12 at the half as Winston led all scorers with 10.
Clouden’s impact on the Spartans' offense was made clear as she returned to the floor in the second half as she scored or assisted on the Spartans' first 14 of the third quarter.
In her eight minutes on the floor, the Spartans shot a perfect 12-12 from the field as well as 2-2 from beyond the arc. In her time on the floor, Clouden scored or assisted on 19 of the Spartans' 25 points.
With this strong performance on offense, the Spartans finally pulled away from the Golden Grizzlies, going on a 27-4 run and leading 73-47 at the end of the third quarter.
"I thought our kids did a really good job in the second half," Merchant said. "In the first half, I thought we kind of shot ourselves in the foot a little bit. Give Oakland credit, I thought they had some good defensive plays that caused some turnovers."
With the game in hand, Merchant continued to look down her bench as Laurel Jacqmain and Jayla James made it 12 total players to play for the Spartans. Merchant’s deep rotation of players held Oakland to just 9 points in the fourth quarter as the Grizzlies shot a dismal 21.1% percent from the field in the fourth.
The trio of Winston, Ayrault and Clouden would go onto score a combined 41 points as the bench, led by Joiner with 13 points, would score 37 points on the bench.
While the Spartans cleaned up the turnovers from the first half, they would still finish with 20 on the night. Despite that, the Spartans shot an efficient 65% from the floor and outrebounded the Grizzlies 43-25.
In their debuts, Smith finished with nine points and James finished with two points and three rebounds.
Oakland struggled on the day, only shooting 34.4% from the field and by turning the ball over 20 times as well.
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Michigan State will enter Big Ten play 7-0 for their best start to the season since 2012-2013.
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