Michigan State women’s basketball (10-5) looks to rebound after a tough loss to No.21 Northwestern as they travel to Happy Valley to face Penn State (8-8) on Saturday.
In addition to both teams vying for higher seeds in the Big Ten Tournament and a potential trip to San Antonio for the NCAA Tournament, this game means just a bit more for the Spartans with Penn State transfers Alisia Smith and Jayla James each on the roster.
Smith returned to her hometown of East Lansing to play for the Spartans this season.
“That kid (Smith) really wants to be good,” Merchant said. “A lot of people talk about it, but not a lot of people put it into action. We’re just thrilled to have her and her entire family. This East Lansing, Lansing community I know appreciates her and her family so to have her in a Spartan uniform, we’re thrilled.”
Since then, Smith has become a vital player in the Spartans lineup, averaging 9.6 points per game along with 5.6 rebounds. Since joining the starting lineup, the two-man game between Smith and Janai Crooms has made a significant impact, as Smith’s points per game since joining the starting lineup is in the double digits with 11.4 points per game.
“To return home to East Lansing, it feels really good to just be home with my family and things like that just because I grew up here and I know a lot of people who are looking forward to me coming home and to be able to play in front of them again.” Smith said. “Going back to Penn State, it’s just like another business trip. I’m very excited to play against my old teammates.”
While the places and locker rooms will be the same, much different from when Smith left. Only three players that Smith regularly played with remain in the regular rotation for Penn State and much of the play styles the Nittany Lions bring have changed too.
“There’s three kids on the roster that she (Smith) played with a year ago that she would have been on the court with and in locker rooms,” Merchant said. “They’ve either had kids transition out, transfer out or there’s new kids that are coming in and playing. They established some things a year ago, but now that Carolyn (Kieger, Penn State Head Coach) has been able to get her own type of players in terms of what she wants to fit in her style. Positionless basketball, playing very up-tempo, those are things I think she has really done a great job of at Penn State.”
While Smith is grateful for the chance to return, it still remains business as usual despite the personal connection.
“I feel like it’s going to be kind of weird,” Smith said. “Everything happens for a reason, I came to this team for a reason, I expect to play well and us as a team to come out with a dub.”
With many new faces in the rotation, there’s also a lot of contributors to Penn State’s success with three players scoring over 14 points per game in Kelly Jekot (15.9 points per game), Johnasia Cash (14.8 points and 9.3 rebounds per game) and point guard Makenna Marisa (14.5 points per game).
“They’re a little positionless when it comes to how they play, which is difficult because everybody can shoot a three for the most part and everyone can get to the rim, so they’re combination players,” Merchant said. “They can go four out, five out, they press, they can play zone — man, they’re a very multidimensional team, and certainly when you go on the road that’s a challenge.”
A matchup to watch out for will be between Smith and Cash as both look to establish their presence down low. This is Cash’s first year with the Nittany Lions after transferring to Penn State from Southern Methodist University.
“Our men have that huge video screen in their aux gym and walking out yesterday it said 25 days left in the regular season and that was like, ‘Wow’, that hits you hard,” Merchant said. “That’s under a month and we got a couple of seniors but for the most part that puts it in perspective. We have some work to do, this is a big game, every game is a big game. That’s not coach speak, that’s the reality of it.”
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