After two weeks of no play for Michigan State women’s basketball due to COVID-19 and the status for the entire roster unknown because of the uncertainty of the virus, it was hard to know what to expect in Sunday’s game against Wisconsin, even if they were winless in Big Ten play.
With Tory Ozment not traveling with the team, the glue that holds the Spartans together, it felt like a moment for the Badgers to steal one from what should have been a rusty Spartan squad.
I can assure you I didn’t expect a 94-62, 32 point thumping in the Kohl Center.
In the end, the Spartans exploded on offense in one of their most efficient outings of the season with only four turnovers, all of which came in the second half with the game well in hand, and the squad shooting 51.5% from the field as well as 62.5% from the field in the second half.
With all of that being said, you would expect with an offensive performance like that a big outing from the backcourt pairing of Nia Clouden and Alyza Winston like we have seen a handful of times this season, but that also wasn’t the case.
For the first time all season, the post-play shined for the Spartans as Alisia Smith and Taiyier Parks combined for 34 points and 11 rebounds on the day, contributing the majority of their team’s 44 total points in the paint.
Let’s go back to the second quarter of the Maryland game that was over nearly three weeks ago. After a solid first-quarter start, Michigan State had a focus to get it down low to Parks and Smith or to their cutters running to the basket, but the Terrapins’ length clogged all of the passing lanes for the Spartans and forced Smith and Parks to make bad decisions with the ball in the post.
In Sunday's game against Wisconsin, Parks and Smith feasted down on the block, making quick, decisive decisions with the ball and getting buckets to keep the pressure on the Badgers.
This season, we’ve seen Parks have stretches of play like this, but not for the entirety of a game. As teams formed double teams, Parks often turned the ball over or made poor decisions with the ball, putting the offense in a poor spot.
Parks against the Badgers shot an efficient 6-of-7 and only turned the ball over once as she came off the bench for the first time all season long.
While Smith didn’t have necessarily the efficient day Parks had from the field, Smith led all scorers with 19 points. Which tied for her all-time, and career-high with Michigan State while making the Badgers pay by drawing fouls and sinking 11-of-13 free throw attempts.
All of this is even more impressive when knowing that Parks and Smith are each dealing with injuries at the moment, including knee and ankle pain for Parks and watching Smith grimace each time she collides with the floor or a defender with her rib injury.
The post-play doesn’t end here either with the four spots being so vital to the Spartans and Head Coach Suzy Merchant this season. With the versatility of Julia Ayrault, Ozment, Kendall Bostic and Mardrekia Cook each being able to complement whoever plays at the five between Smith and Parks, the interior of the Spartans suddenly looks like a serious problem to handle.
Ayrault brings an extra defensive punch along with an all-around offensive game while Ozment and Bostic stretch the floor with their shooting and Bostic, in particular, is exactly what teams are looking for as a modern-day power forward. Lastly and certainly not least, Cook can guard multiple positions and often the best player on the opposing team.
Frankly, the versatility the power forward spot has is what makes the Michigan State post play from Parks and Smith possible.
The ultimate test for the post would have come this week in back to back games with their rival Michigan and their star Naz Hillmon, who scored 50 against Ohio State. Unfortunately, that won’t happen due to the Wolverines' two-week pause due to COVID-19, but hopefully that matchup can be played at least once later down the line.
Regardless, the Big Ten continuously brings strong competition on a nightly basis when it comes to strong post play. Even the Badgers had Imani Lewis, who reached the 1,000 point milestone against the Spartans that very night.
That’s where their next game against #16 Indiana suddenly becomes even more interesting with super sophomore Mackenzie Holmes leading her team in points, rebounds and blocks leading the way for the likely AP top 15 Hoosiers by the time they play.
If the Spartans post-play can continue to be this much of a source on offense, that suddenly makes the Spartans a serious contender for a Big Ten title and much more apt to battle Big Ten leader Maryland again, a team that Spartans are targeting after their heartbreaking loss.
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“It was a really close game," Clouden said after their loss to Maryland on Jan. 7. "We think we can compete with anybody in the league, especially Maryland. We’re really looking forward to that game to be able to prove that we can beat anybody in the league and just being able to play hard, and we know that things didn’t go our way tonight, but we’re just excited about having another chance at it.”
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