Nia Clouden had two 3-point attempts to tie the game.
Neither fell and so did the Spartans as both of the star guards shots fell short and No. 22 Northwestern beat MSU, 63-60 after MSU came back from a 19-point deficit at halftime to have an attempt to tie the game in the final seconds.
The Spartans (10-5, 5-5 Big Ten) were looking for their first win over an AP-ranked opponent, but scoring droughts have been the killer of Michigan State in their losses this season and that was the case for the Spartans on Sunday afternoon, despite their heroic second-half efforts.
In the first quarter, the Spartans shot a dismal 3-of-14 from the field including missing both attempts from the free-throw line to begin the game.
The Wildcats on the other hand, began the game on fire, starting the game on a 17-4 run in which the team hit three of their five shots from beyond the arc.
Michigan State Head Coach Suzy Merchant called a timeout and made some adjustments on both sides of the ball, but it was only the defense of the Spartans that would begin to pick up as the quarter wrapped up. MSU only allowed two points in the final 3:36 of the quarter.
The Spartans could not capitalize on their defensive play, as they closed the quarter by being unable to get a shot off.
MSU's offense continued to sputter into the second quarter as the Wildcats truly disrupted the Spartans superstar Nia Clouden with their pressure defense and bringing the occasional double team to force her to pass it back out. At the end of the half, Clouden was 1-of-7 from the field along with three turnovers.
The lone bright spot for the Spartans in the first half was Taiyier Parks and Janai Crooms, who played a crucial role in keeping the game within reach on the defensive end of the floor with key plays including two steals and a block from Crooms. Parks finished the half as the leading scorer for the Spartans with five.
The Wildcats continued their steady play on offense in the second quarter, specifically from the free-throw line as they hit seven of their 10 attempts from the line. Their forced turnovers also turned into easy buckets on the other end, as the Spartans' 12 turnovers turned into 10 points for the Wildcats.
The Wildcats in each quarter in the first half outscored Michigan State’s entire first half offensive output, as Northwestern scored 19 and 18 in each quarter to Michigan State’s 18 point offensive output in the first half.
Coach Merchant made changes at the half by coming out with Parks in the starting lineup in place of Moira Joiner to try and find scoring opportunities in the post.
Boy did it work.
“I think in the first half we tended to play more selfishly,” Merchant said. “We didn’t move the ball or share the ball. We decided to go a bit bigger in the second half, which we had been practicing, and maybe that’s something we have to look at until our guards can be consistent. We just need to find some tough kids that can produce a bit.”
The Spartans began the third quarter on a 14-3 run, cutting the lead down to eight after trailing by 19 at the half.
Merchant felt that she needed to fire up her team with some tough love at the half.
“I really got into them, really got into them and they decided to respond,” Merchant said. “We got a lot of good opportunities, maybe if we did a better job at the free throw line, shooting 50%, 11 for 22 seems to be something that haunted us a little bit today. I liked our effort, our energy and our toughness for sure. What I said I probably shouldn’t repeat, but it seemed to catch their attention.”
The Wildcats battled back by slowing the game down in the third quarter, repeatedly drawing fouls at the basket and converting at the free-throw line, hitting 7-of-13 attempts at the line.
Despite struggling on the night, Clouden kept the game within reach on a buzzer-beating three to only trail nine at the half.
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Superstars hardly stay quiet for long as Clouden began to take control, scoring five quick points to pull within three points.
With an 8-0 run, the Spartans suddenly had their first lead of the day after trailing by as much as 21.
The Wildcats' season leading scorer Veronica Burton stepped up when the moment meant the most, scoring five on her own to recapture the lead.
Clouden with 8.6 seconds got the ball in her hands with the game on the line down three, but both attempts were no good as the Wildcats escaped with the victory.
Michigan State finished the day shooting 39.7% from the field and 18 turnovers, including a dismal 10-20 on layups on the night.
Parks neared her career-high with 13 points along with and 11 rebounds. Despite starting 1-of-7, Clouden scored 12 points along with an unusual 4 turnovers on the day.
The Wildcats offense on the day shot 37.8% and did a great job getting to the free-throw line, sinking 24-of-37 attempts. Northwestern’s season leading scorers each came to East Lansing to play as Lindsey Pulliam and Veronica Burton combined for 41 points.
Michigan State will look to regain their footing in their next scheduled game against Penn State on Saturday.
“It’s come down to two games at home between Nebraska and this one where if we bring energy and toughness for forty minutes, we might have a different outcome,” Merchant said. “Lessons to be learned, but we're running out of time to learn them. I told them, ‘next game, we better bring it for forty minutes because everyone is good enough to beat you in this league.’”
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