With injuries to starters Julia Ayrault and Taiyier Parks and foul trouble persisting for key contributors Nia Clouden and Alisia Smith, Michigan State head women’s basketball coach Suzy Merchant made changes to the game plan.
Those changes didn’t result in a win, but those changes still proved fruitful in the team's loss against Nebraska on Sunday night.
In the second quarter, Michigan State found themselves down 10 with their star Clouden scoreless. Needing to find a way to get back in it, Merchant turned to a 2-3 zone along with their woman-to-woman defense as well as a press that helped spark the Spartans back into a lead.
“We knew that we were going to need to use that at some point,” Merchant said, “Certainly, we’ve had it this whole time. We just haven’t used it a ton. Their (Nebraska's) size presents a problem. Their three-man is 6-foot-3 and is a scoring kid. We might have someone who is 6-foot-2 at that spot or could play someone there, but they’re more faceup than they are post-up.”
In a game where nothing was seeming to go right for the Spartans, this new element on defense frustrated Nebraska, forcing 17 turnovers including a dismal 26.7% shooting percentage in the third quarter alone.
“I think that we did a pretty good job,” sophomore guard Alyza Winston said. “We haven’t pressed this year at all, but I think that it bothered them, especially when we first came out in the third quarter. I think we turned them over like two or three times in a row. I think we need to keep working on it because it could be very effective.”
“I think we did a good job for this game being the first game we actually ran it consistently throughout the game, but I think it definitely helped us,” Winston said.
The zone defense in particular seemed to bother Nebraska in the halfcourt and will likely be a component of the Spartan defense going forward.
“I thought (the zone) was effective,” Merchant said. “Again, it was more of our offensive side of the ball. We were very flat.”
A lot of those issues offensively came from Clouden’s foul trouble, but also from the fact that Ayrault, who traditionally slots in at the four, was out.
In a position where Ayrault typically spreads the floor, that was missing for the Spartans and forced adjustments there as well but were not as successful as the defensive ones made.
“We had to play Tory (Ozment) at some four and offensively, sometimes with Mardrekia (Cook) playing the four sometimes she’s good defensively and does certain things well on the drive, but they were really playing us for the drive,” Merchant said. “That kind of adjusted some things for us offensively as well.”
A large part of that third-quarter effort came from Ozment, who got two steals and six points in the opening minutes to get the team back in it while running that 2-3 zone.
“She really brought, I thought, in the second half,” Merchant said. “She competed and that was kind of the difference. I thought the first half we were just playing the game versus really competing. I thought Tory came out and set the tone that way. She plays hard and she plays within the flow of the game.”
Ozment is an intriguing player to have within the zone with her height of 6-foot-1 and long arms.
The Buford, Georgia, native is a player who can play multiple spots in a 2-3 zone as well as guard many opposing players in a woman-to-woman defense with her quickness and ability to guard the perimeter and paint.
“I think those adjustments helped a lot in the second half,” Ozment said. “We’ve been practicing that for the past week now, so I think we’ve gotten more comfortable even though we haven’t really done that a lot in the past. I think that disrupted them a little bit, the press and the zone. They had a harder time getting shots, but we still just couldn’t finish the deal. I think those will be good methods for us in the future.”
Merchant has a lot of those types of players with the versatility to guard multiple positions, especially on the wings, something that should help the Spartans going forward.
However, Merchant was not happy about the loss and challenged her deep roster to earn their minutes.
“I don’t know if I’m playing too many people," Merchant said. "I said this to the team, but everybody is getting time. I guess maybe now it just needs to be people that need to earn it. I’m trying to keep too many people happy it’s just not working out at this point.”
So, after two consecutive losses, the Spartans need to get back on track quickly as the Big Ten schedule continues to get harder in one of the deepest conferences in women's basketball.
“Yeah, we definitely can’t dwell on it,” Winston said. “We have Illinois and right after that, we have a really tough game streak. We have Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, and then Michigan and Indiana again. We need to come into Illinois strong and pull that one out so that we can get back on our scoring streak. We definitely can’t dwell on it. Everybody is a tough team this year.”
With these new elements in Merchant’s back pocket, Big Ten teams will have much more to plan for when they see the Spartans next.
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