Coming into Wednesday’s game against No. 25 Rutgers, the Spartans had a chance to help solidify their NCAA Tournament chances with a win over a pesky Scarlet Knights squad. Despite a strong start, the Spartans failed to pounce on the opportunity with just two scheduled games left in the season.
The Spartans currently sit at 39 in the NET rankings, a tool used by the committee to evaluate a team’s wins and losses to determine if they deserve to be in the tournament. With just two games to go as of now before the Big Ten tournament, the Spartans are beginning to fall into that bubble category.
“I feel like our NET is really high, I know people keep talking about it but I feel good about our team,” Merchant said. “Obviously you want to win every single one of your games going down the stretch here certainly, but we’ll see. It’s just one at a time, really we just gotta evaluate this one and get better and get ready for the next one. Nebraska at Nebraska is not an easy one, that’s for sure.”
Michigan State as of late has not gotten the consistent production it usually gets from Nia Clouden, who has failed to score double digits in back-to-back games after succeeding in doing that in every game this season prior to the last two games.
In addition, the other two starting guards for MSU failed to score more than one basket in Janai Crooms and Alyza Winston despite their solid play as of late.
"We gotta get Nia Clouden back on track, that’s back-to-back game she hasn’t really played very well offensively for us,” Merchant said. “Certainly, Alyza started to come to life and then didn’t score at all really today. Janai gotta finish better too, we just gotta get better.”
Rutgers played extremely physical in this one with their press and “excessive” enthusiasm on the court as Merchant called it. That effort from the Scarlet Knights disrupted the Spartans, especially the guards, holding Michigan State to 18.5% shooting as a team in the second half.
“Our starting three guards between Clouden, Janai and Alyza were 2-29 for the game, we won’t win a lot of games with those kind of numbers, I don’t care who we're playing” Merchant said. “We shot 18 percent in both the third and the fourth, we were able to do a good job defensively, we were leading going into the fourth quarter. We knew their pressure was coming for days, we practiced it for days, we watched it, we had different press breakers, it was kind of disappointing that we didn’t handle it as well as I thought we were capable of, especially with three point guards out there. At the same time, we still gotta be able to score the ball.”
Both Clouden and Winston took the court after the game to get shots up as you could see the frustration on each of their faces after another tough outing. For now, the team knows what they can do, and wants them to continue to do what they do best.
“I tell them to keep shooting it,” Merchant said. “We run plays for them, shoot the ball, I mean the whole bench is telling Alyza every day, ‘Shoot the ball, shoot the ball, you’re open, shoot the ball, look for your shot.’ It’s gotta come from her at some point. We gotta get a chip on her shoulder and get a little mad about what’s going on because she’s very capable.”
The Spartans could also be without Julia Ayrault and Mardrekia Cook for some time as Ayrault has entered concussion protocol and Merchant announced in her post-game press conference that Cook has been playing with a torn meniscus this season, which really stretches their depth thin at the power forward position.
“We didn’t have a starter in Julia, Julia’s out, ‘Drekia’s (Cook) is out, ‘Drekia started some games, she’s a fifth-year senior and she’s out,” Merchant said. “To start the Purdue game we were down ‘Drek and then the game went on and then Julia got hurt in that game, and she’s out. Now we have different combinations we’re trying to play right now. We have big lineups, small lineups, this is the first time I had to play Mo joiner at the four, I gotta play somebody. We had to go smaller so Tory could get a rest and then always have Kendall and one of our two fives’. We’re just really working combinations right now based on who we're going to play.”
This forced Moira Joiner to step up and play at the four spot at times despite typically being a guard for her team. As of late, Joiner has been playing great basketball for her team, playing hard defensive basketball and hitting threes, including three in the first half against Rutgers to help build at one time a nine-point lead for Michigan State.
“I’m like a defensive person on our team, so any defensive job, I’m going to take it,” Joiner said. “I’m going to do my best trying to guard the best girls and try to keep them as low scoring as possible. Mainly my versatility, we were out a couple fours and I had to step up and play the four today, I’ve never done that.”
Despite all that this team is battling, the confidence is there to make the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s pretty frustrating to know that,” Michigan State center Taiyier Parks said. “We know that we can run with most of these teams in our conference and to have it go like that is kind of discouraging, but we’re going to keep fighting.”
With just over a week left in the regular season, each game means more than ever.
“Just like a dog fight, we need these wins bad,” Joiner said. “If we want to play in the postseason, we just gotta finish a game. We can’t lay down in the fourth quarter, we gotta finish a whole game, whole 40 minutes.”
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