Like all things in the last year, nothing could just be normal for Michigan State women’s basketball.
Just 20 minutes before the selection show on ESPN, Michigan State head coach Suzy Merchant checked her phone as an email popped up on her latest COVID-19 test.
Her test was rejected.
While the test was not positive, Merchant had to rush to Sparrow Testing Center near Frandor to get a test to make sure she was going to be ready to travel to Texas on Wednesday. As a result, Merchant had to watch the selection show from her car instead of with her team.
“For basketball coaches that's like Christmas Day,” Merchant said. “To miss that moment with your team was a real bummer, but at the same time, it's kind of how the year has gone, we just got to roll with it.”
Michigan State senior Mardrekia Cook had been a part of a selection show with her team before and this one felt a bit different without her coach there.
“It was very weird because we're used to everyone being in the room especially someone who is as important as Coach Merchant,” Cook said. “We got the news that she was getting a PCR test so at least she's handling business. We hope and pray to have her with us when we go down to San Antonio, but it was really weird.”
For Merchant, this moment was devastating but nothing that just about everyone on Earth hasn't had in the last year.
This news came right on the heels of learning that the Connecticut women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma had tested positive for COVID-19 and would miss the first two rounds of the tournament with his number one seeded team.
However, it appears that this may have been a simple testing issue for Merchant with multiple tests coming back negative prior to this inconclusive test.
“I know there's big news with Geno being positive, but I don't really feel that's the case with my negative antigen testing and all the tests we've done,” Merchant said. “I think I did six in a row with all of us going into the Big Ten Tournament, so nothing's ever been alarming. I feel fine so I'm not anticipating it being a problem.”
The Spartans found out that they will be facing seven seed Iowa State on Monday at 6 p.m. on ESPN, a moment that meant the world to them after a year of uncertainty.
“It feels great,” Cook said. “With last year and COVID and all the injuries we had, we missed out on even playing in the tournament or making it. We probably weren't going to make it most likely last year, so it just feels great with everything that's going on this year to see your hard work paying off.”
Iowa State comes into the tournament at 16-10 including a win over the last national champion in Baylor. This challenge excites the Spartans as they look to make noise as a young team.
“I'm super excited,” Cook said. “I know they have some really good players on our team, Ashley (Joens) is one, she's an incredible player. I actually watched them play Iowa earlier in the season and they're a great team, I'm super excited. I think it's going to be a great matchup. I'm super excited about that game.”
This is a team that, despite the injuries, is playing their best basketball at the right time with two wins in the Big Ten Tournament and with Nia Clouden breaking out onto the scene, making the Big Ten All-Tournament team in Indianapolis.
“We won a big game against Indiana, which we weren't able to win a pretty big game the whole regular season so I was glad we were able to do that,” Clouden said. “I feel like after that game, our team, we've kind of figured out how to win in a close game or in a big game, so I feel like that was a very valuable lesson and a very good experience for us.”
The last time these two teams matched up in the NCAA Tournament, things didn’t go too well for the Spartans as Iowa State knocked in a three pointer late to send the Spartans home after reaching the Sweet 16.
Instead of dwelling or reflecting on what could have been, this team and their coach is focusing on this current moment.
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“At any point, your moment could be taken from you,” Merchant said. “My goal is just to prepare them as best we can and I'm sure Iowa State is gonna do the same.”
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