Senior day for Michigan State women’s basketball has a lot on the line with a tournament birth and one potential last win at home for seniors playing their final game against Wisconsin on Saturday.
The Spartans and their Head Coach Suzy Merchant will be looking to get a win for players Mardrekia Cook, Laurel Jacqmain and Claire Hendrickson, who is not a senior but will be ending her playing career this season for Michigan State after a career plagued with injuries.
“This is by far one of the most fun, the craziest year, but the most fun I've ever had coaching any team here at Michigan State,” Merchant said. “These kids are just fun to be around. They smile. They're grateful. They want to get better every day. I don't have kids that you just wonder what they're going to be like that day. This is a business you can wonder that sometimes kids get their little moods, and they've been such a great group to be around. I credit 'Drekia (Mardrekia) a lot for that because I think she kept them on the right path.”
While Michigan State’s senior day is typically a day full of festivities as seniors take the floor with their parents prior to the game and after, that won’t happen with the pandemic this season. However, the team still plans to honor their seniors.
“Our plan is still to celebrate them,” Merchant said. “They won't let any of the parents on the main level just due to the COVID restrictions, so this year we're going to try to do some different things after the game and maybe include their parents and family members in a video so that there's a little involvement with their parents or people they'd like to have on the court with them or normally would walk out with them. We're going to try and do something a little bit different that way just to build that bridge even though they can't walk out with them, but we'll do our best.”
“I just want them to walk off the court knowing how much we appreciate them and what they've done for us," she said.
This senior class means a bit more for Merchant since these three have given a lot to the program and sacrificed a lot.
“There's always a lot of emotions on senior day,” Merchant said. “I've said to ‘Drekia a million times, ‘This is your last first week in the Breslin. This is your last two day out prep for a game.’ You just started thinking about those things with Claire and Lo (Laurel) and ‘Drekia. It kind of puts you in a mode of appreciation for them and what they've been through, how they've had your back and what they've invested in this program.”
The Spartans will still have other things to handle outside of what will be an emotional day as they look to secure an NCAA Tournament bid. Currently, Michigan State is inside the top-40 of the NCAA’s NET rating but is still listed at one of the final four teams in Charlie Creme’s Bracketology on ESPN.
“I think you just have to control your controllables,” Merchant said. “I think we've done a pretty good job this year of winning games that we should, and we've had some really close losses where the NET helps you. I think we've had one bad loss at Maryland. Everything else has been a possession or two, give or take. Adjusting to the NET on the women's side has been helpful, and it's certainly helped the men's side. I'm actually anxious to see how that helps on the women's side, and we feel good about our body of work at this point.”
NCAA Tournament bid odds on the line
The Badgers are coming into Saturday’s game much improved from the last time they saw the Spartans when they gave Merchant her largest margin of victory over a Big Ten opponent. Wisconsin lost to Michigan State by 32 on Jan. 24.
Despite only winning two games since their defeat to Michigan State, they kept most games close, and one of those wins was against one of the Big Ten’s leaders in Ohio State.
“Everybody in this league is really good," Merchant said "Wisconsin just beat Ohio State the other day. They're playing extremely well. They're a big team. They have some really positive strengths that are tough to handle. We're just going to have to come out here and just roll up our sleeves and second-time opponents, you can never really rely on exactly what you did last time.”
Julia Ayrault is day to day according to Merchant after suffering a concussion against Purdue on Feb. 21, and it is unclear whether Cook will play or appear in the game after missing the last few games with her torn meniscus beginning to become too much to play through this season.
Win or lose, the Spartans are a lock for the nine seed in the Big Ten tournament based on their win-loss percentage in conference play and will likely face Nebraska as the eighth seed.
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