Monday, September 27, 2021

Sophomore class for Michigan State women's basketball rises to the occasion in postseason

March 11, 2021
<p>Sophomore guard Alyza Winston (3) pants as she prepares to block a pass from her designated Penn State player in the second quarter. The Spartans finally defeated the Lady Lions 75-66 on the second day of the Big Ten Tournament hosted at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Shot on March 10, 2021.</p>

Sophomore guard Alyza Winston (3) pants as she prepares to block a pass from her designated Penn State player in the second quarter. The Spartans finally defeated the Lady Lions 75-66 on the second day of the Big Ten Tournament hosted at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Shot on March 10, 2021.

Photo by Lauren DeMay | The State News

Penn State came out the gates firing on all cylinders from beyond the arc, hitting five three pointers in just the first quarter. Michigan State needed someone to rise to the occasion.

How about the sophomore class as a whole?

Alyza Winston alongside Taiyier Parks and Moira Joiner carried the Spartans to victory on Wednesday night, combining for 46 points, including 23 from Winston to get a 75-66 victory.

The sophomore class that began their Spartan careers last year was without two members of their class, Julia Ayrault (concussion) and Cydni Dodd who is out for the season with an undisclosed injury, but the trio left behind rose to the occasion on Wednesday night.

“There’s definitely a different feel from them this year compared to last year’s Big Ten Tournament,” Michigan State head coach Suzy Merchant said. “That’s a pretty obvious statement, I think the first time you’re here it’s a big stage, it’s so different, there’s a lot on the line, survive and advance is a different feel than getting to play no matter what the next day. So, just to see their maturity and step up.”

It all began with Winston as she brought a consistent scoring output this team needed throughout the season to complement Nia Clouden.

“When we’re playing our best basketball, I think Nia Clouden and Alyza are on their game offensively, sharing the ball with each other and attacking in different ways,” Merchant said. “Alyza was really, really good today. I thought defensively she did a nice job.”

Clouden, until Wednesday, had been struggling mightily. Since scoring a career high 34 points against Michigan, Clouden had failed to reach double figure points. On Wednesday, she rounded back into form, scoring 18 alongside the sophomore class.

For the first time this season, Clouden was able to sit back and let those sophomores take over and compliment them on their play.

“They were great,” Clouden said. “I was complimenting their play, they played so good. Alyza, she was hitting so many shots. Tai (Taiyier), she was rebounding, blocking shots. I feel like they just played with a lot of confidence, they knew what this game meant, they knew what they had to do and they just came out and they did it.”

Perhaps the most experienced sophomore on the team Joiner came to play as well, scoring 13 points along with three, three point baskets to go along with her gritty, hustle plays she has on both sides of the floor.

“I thought Mo was exceptional,” Merchant said. “I thought Mo defensively, charge taking, getting rebounds, hustling, competing, knocking shots down, to me this is one of the best games I feel like she’s played in a really long time and all season. We really needed that from her and she’s a kid that will do a little bit of everything.”

Late in the third, Penn State began to rally back as they were up four off of a Maddie Burke three. It was Taiyier Parks who helped spark a 8-0 run, scoring six of those eight in the paint.

Parks has started to become the big who plays the most minutes for Michigan State in crunch time as time has gone on with her play improving at such a fast pace.

“Her power and her pinning and sealing right now has been as good as anybody we have had here in a while,” Merchant said. “Her freshman year she was just kind of learning and this year she’s spent a lot of time with Coach Dean (Lockwood) ... We always just say, ‘Just take one out, just take one out. It doesn’t matter if they are in man or zone, you gotta take somebody out.’ Not hurt them, but take someone out with a duck-in, a pin and seal, walk em up the lane, flash. All the things she can do to get an opportunity where she can get an angle to keep it simple for herself and I really think she's starting to figure that out.”

No matter what Michigan State accomplishes in the rest of the postseason, the Spartans are getting incredible experience to grow for next season and beyond with such a young core of players, something that excites Merchant.

“Do I think it can be that next level group, I do,” Merchant said. “We certainly have the opportunity to stay together for a while since we're pretty young out there in terms of who we graduated. I'm excited about this group right now but certainly the ceiling and where it can go in the future.”

Heading back to the hotel tonight, this tight-knit class will certainly be feeling like they have taken the next step in what should be great careers for all of them.

“I’m really proud of us,” Winston said. “Tai (Taiyier) came in and gave us a lot of great minutes and Mo stepped up tonight. They were who I came in with and I’m really closest to them. It means a lot that we can all step up and take that role on and help us come out victorious.”

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