As the snow melted outside the Breslin, things started to feel like March inside the complex too as No. 25 Rutgers and Michigan State battled possession by possession as each looked to solidify their place in the NCAA Tournament.
Rutgers would ultimately prevail as their defense shut down the Spartans in their 63-53 victory in East Lansing.
The Spartans were without two crucial players in Julia Ayrault (concussion) and Mardrekia Cook (knee) due to injury and that left the Spartans shorthanded in a very physical ball game.
It was fast-paced and physical early on as the referees let each team play despite a rough game. Michigan State’s interior took advantage of Rutgers' limited size early as Alisia Smith began the game with back-to-back put-back opportunities off of her offensive rebounds.
The guards of Michigan State took advantage of their size advantage early as well. Nia Clouden and Janai Crooms got it down to Smith early and often for quick buckets.
It was Taiyier Parks’ turn in the second quarter as she racked up six quick points to begin the quarter to get the lead up to eight for the Spartans.
In place of an injured Julia Ayrault, Tory Ozment stepped back into the starting lineup after drilling a buzzer-beater to take down Purdue their last time out. Ozment to get the lead up to eight pump-faked and drilled a three to continue her strong play from behind the arc as of late.
Despite being replaced by Crooms in the starting lineup, Moira Joiner’s two-way ability proved vital for the Spartans in the first half, nailing three threes and a crucial steal late in the first half to keep a seven-point cushion.
“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 try my best to guard the best girls and try to keep them as low scoring as possible but 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.”
Rutgers continued to battle as their star Arella Guirantes was held to two points on 1-of-8 shooting on the half. The Scarlet Knights’ star freshmen duo Diamond Johnson and Liz Martino picked up the slack and combined for 23 of Rutgers’ 28 first-half points.
The Scarlet Knights turned up their effort on the defensive which sparked an 8-0 run to give RU its first lead since early in the first quarter as Michigan State started off the quarter 0-for-7 before Tory Ozment broke the scoring drought with a mid-range bucket as the shot clock expired.
The Spartans would not be deterred, however, as they returned the favor on the Rutgers 7-0 run with an 8-0 run of their own as Parks began to take over underneath the basket, hauling in three offensive rebounds that turned into three points off of her made free-throw and a put-back on her missed free throw by Ozment to get the lead back up to five.
The Spartans entered the fourth quarter up seven as Parks laid in another basket to get her scoring total up to a team-high 10 points at the end of the third.
The Rutgers press and half-court defense reached a new height even after holding the Spartans to 11 points on 3-of-16 shooting as their press turned into easy offense and their half-court defense caused back-to-back shot-clock violations for the Spartans. That effort turned into a 12-0 run for the Scarlet Knights.
After struggling on the day, Guirantes was crucial down the stretch scoring nine points in the fourth to boost her squad to victory in East Lansing as Michigan State was only able to score seven points themselves in the entire fourth quarter.
The Spartans, despite playing solid in the first half struggled to score in the second half, only scoring 18 points in the entire half and shooting 18.5% from the floor.
“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” Michigan State head coach Suzy Merchant said. “We shot 18% 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, 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.”
The center duo of Parks and Smith would go on to combine for 20 points and 13 rebounds as they took advantage of Rutgers' lack of interior defense on the day. Joiner, despite a hot start from beyond the arc early, was held scoreless in the second half with only 2 shot attempts in the half and finished with nine points.
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Clouden despite her usual consistency once again failed to reach double-digit points, scoring eight points on 1-14 shooting. Her backcourt partner Alyza Winston after scoring 16 against Purdue was only able to muster one point on 0-8 shooting.
"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's gotta finish better too, we just gotta get better.”
Johnson went on to finish with 22 points as the rest of her team struggled to score at an efficient level on the day. However, their fourth quarter was the best offensive quarter for any team as they scored 24 points shooting 70% from the floor and sinking eight free throws to close the game down the stretch.
Michigan State will play their third game in the matter of one week as they travel to Nebraska on Saturday, looking to avenge their loss from earlier this season.
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