No. 23 Michigan State women’s basketball is off to their best start since 2012-2013 after defeating Purdue in West Lafayette, Indiana, to move to 8-0. However, their hardest test yet awaits as No. 12 Maryland comes to East Lansing on Thursday evening at 5 p.m.
The Terrapins (7-1) have their lone loss coming against No. 25 Missouri State, who has the Spartans all-time scorer Tori Jankoska as an assistant coach on their staff. With six players scoring over 10 points per game with stars Ashley Owusu, who averages 18.6 points per game and Diamond Miller — 18.1 points per game — leading the way.
This team is going to be a handful, just ask Michigan State Head Coach Suzy Merchant who could spend days discussing what Maryland will do.
“Geez, how much time do you have?” Merchant said. “They’re a tough matchup.”
Merchant affirmed that it'll be tough and as the AP-ranked matchup will likely play a role in the Spartans' postseason hopes, here are three keys for each squad as both teams look to get a big win at the start of Big Ten play.
Michigan State’s keys to the game
1. Nia Clouden needs to seize the moment
Clouden rarely fails to rise to the occasion, but this one means more.
This is the type of game Clouden thrives on, especially when it comes against her home state school.
"I always love playing Maryland,” Clouden said. “I'm from Maryland, so it's obviously a big thing and then being able to go back there and play there in front of my family, friends, former classmates and friends, stuff like this, is all really important.”
Merchant has been thrilled with the star point guard this season and the growth she has exhibited since she was the young freshman taking the reins at point guard.
"Her ability to shoot the ball, she's really working on that three-point range, and she has a nice stroke and that’s something she's committed to,” Merchant said. “I think becoming a complete player from the arc, all the way off the bounce as well as being a vocal leader are the two things I've seen her handle and improve on here in the last couple years.”
Averaging 19.1 points and five assists per game, this is Clouden’s team. She has been dynamic, to say the least, all year long and will need to be that and some offensively and be the aggressor to keep the offensive moving.
2. Limit turnovers
This one seems simple enough, but quite frankly could be the difference between a close game and a blowout on Thursday afternoon.
Maryland is explosive offensively, leading the NCAA in points per game by averaging 95.6 points per game on the season due to their multiple ways to win.
“Their transition game is incredible,” Merchant said. “They've got bigs that can shoot and bigs that can post. They can really score the ball well, so there's challenges there. And then to this day, they're probably one of the best offensive rebounding teams collectively that we've seen.”
This Maryland team can already run a team out of the gym. The last thing Michigan State needs to do is make it easy for Maryland and feed their fastbreak offense.
3. Alyza Winston’s shooting
Winston went cold against Purdue, shooting 1-of-9 from the field. The sophomore guard began the Big Ten season playing the best basketball of her career by scoring 20 against Minnesota and 25 against Iowa when her team needed it most.
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This is a good defensive team per usual under Merchant, but they won’t be able to hold Maryland to 64 points like they did to Purdue earlier this week, not when their opponent is among the best offensive teams in the nation.
Winston, however, has the opportunity to bounce back and certainly plays with the fire to do it. But she will need to have one of those solid shooting nights to force the defense to zero in on her to make it easier for her teammates.
1. Expose Michigan State’s bigs
The Spartans are thin in the frontcourt with sophomore Taiyier Parks still playing limited minutes with a nagging knee injury and struggling to keep up defensively. Penn State transfer and Lansing Waverly graduate Alisia Smith looks to be a tremendous addition to the rotation on both sides of the ball, but who else is ready?
Maryland’s talent should look to attack the Spartans’ bigs when they are running their half-court sets as Parks has struggled to play consistently on that end and Smith would be the only other true five Merchant can roll out.
2. Clog passing lanes
Michigan State is one of the best passing teams in the nation, ranked in the top 10 in total assists and top five in assist to turnover ratio. If you want to stop this offense, force Michigan State to play as much hero ball as possible and force turnovers
Time and time again the Spartans find themselves with each player in the rotation scoring points as this team swings the ball across the floor to find a good look. If you can create turnovers or force Clouden or the wings to take tough shots on the perimeter, you have the Spartans right where you want them.
3. Establish dominance early
Maryland’s offense is a juggernaut, something that few teams can truly stop other than Maryland doing it themselves on a bad shooting night.
The Terrapins have legitimate pros on this roster between Owusu and Miller. They should go out and play like it and make the game tough for Michigan State right from the tip.
Michigan State has done enough in each game they’ve played so far, but the Maryland offense is too much.
Maryland 81 - Michigan State 75
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