Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Michigan State women's basketball looks to improve half-court offense heading into Big Ten gauntlet

January 20, 2021
Julia Ayrault takes a shot during a women’s basketball game against Northwestern on Jan. 23, 2020 at the Breslin Center.
Julia Ayrault takes a shot during a women’s basketball game against Northwestern on Jan. 23, 2020 at the Breslin Center. —
Photo by Alyte Katilius | The State News

Michigan State women’s basketball remains on the sideline as COVID-19 issues have forced the team to miss three consecutive games. Prior to the pause in play, the Spartans were in the midst of a two-game losing streak after beginning the season undefeated at 8-0.

The Spartans began their Big Ten season at 3-0 with wins over Iowa, Purdue and Minnesota, before dropping back-to-back games against Big Ten powerhouse Maryland and a surprisingly improved Nebraska squad.

That’s the everyday gauntlet of the Big Ten.

“Those are the lessons," Head Coach Suzy Merchant said. "Unfortunately, in this league everybody is really good and you have to bring it and you have to play hard and with great enthusiasm. I think that was the frustrating part a little bit for us. We were a little bit flat, I thought, all the way around offensively and defensively.”

The schedule for the Spartans was only set to get tough as two of the three games that were postponed were against opponents in the AP Top 25 in No. 11 Michigan and No. 16 Indiana. However, those games are set to take place once again at the end of the month as the Spartans were previously scheduled to face Indiana and Michigan a second time.

The status of the Spartans’ next game against the 3-8 Wisconsin Badgers has yet to be announced; however, this games resembles much of what the Spartans’ first game to be canceled was with Illinois, who is currently 2-6, and the following cancellations with Michigan and Indiana.

Prior to the first postponement and any knowledge of any possible COVID-19 issues, Merchant likened Michigan State’s matchup against the Illini to the age-old task of riding a bike.

"It's like when you fall off your bike, you have to get back up and start riding eventually,” Merchant said. “I think that's the thing that we have to look at is, you can't worry about what's happened in the past, we have to learn from it, get better and move on.”

To hop back up on the bike, one of the issues that the team will need to work out to regain their balance from quarter to quarter is being a more consistent offensive team, specifically in the halfcourt.

Against Maryland, the Terrapins’ length clogged passing lanes and contested every shot the Spartans put up, and held them to 14 points in the second quarter.

The Spartans, in their loss to Nebraska, struggled with the interior defense of the Cornhuskers as they contested each shot that came into the paint before finally coming into their own when running in transition.

When Michigan State can’t run, they struggle.

And that’s where Merchant wants to become a better offensive team.

“I think that's something we have to continue to work on and get better,” she said. “We've been really working the last couple (of) days on our offensive execution, whether that be our quick hits or our primary, mainstay offense that we run and just really doing a better job of  executing when we needed a bucket, making sure the right person gets the right shot at the right time.”

One of the Spartans who can help with that is guard Alyza Winston, someone who Merchant had expressed multiple times needs to play more consistently to help this offense flow. In her team’s best win of the season over Iowa, Winston scored a career-high 25 points. In Michigan State’s two losses, Winston has only been able to score 10 and 11 in each game.

"I think that consistency piece, especially with Alyza, is important,” Merchant said. "Nia (Clouden) has been pretty consistent in her whole career, you kind of know what she's gonna give you. She's averaging 20+ a game for a reason. I think she really has a good feel for the game and understands how she can score, when she can score. She reads her opportunities well, and I think Alyza is still up and down a little bit and we need her to start getting back to be in that player that we know she can be.”

The other key component for their halfcourt offense is Julia Ayrault, who left the game early against Nebraska due to an undisclosed injury. According to Merchant last week, both Ayrault and Taiyier Parks, who rolled her ankle, both practiced before the games were postponed.

Ayrault has a unique skill set as someone who plays like a guard, but can play as a forward and has emerged as one of the top scoring options and one of the best defenders on the team as a sophomore.

“Julia has got almost a point guard feel at the four spot," Merchant said. "Her passing has another level; she understands that. She's a really good shot-blocker and rebounder. She's improved on her defense, still working on that part of her game, but I think offensively what she brings is that stretch ability to be a shooter for us on the perimeter as well as put the ball on the floor and create for other people.”

Whenever the Spartans do take the floor again, the half-court offense will be key in Michigan State’s Big Ten success. With five teams in the AP Top 25, the half-court offense will be key to not falling into the stack of Big Ten teams looking to emerge to the top of the standings.

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