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Spartans look forward to a bright future as season comes to an end in NCAA Tournament

March 22, 2021
<p>Head Coach Suzy Merchant yells at her bench during the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Monday, March 25, 2013, at Comcast Center in College Park, Maryland. The Spartans lost to Maryland, 74-49. Julia Nagy/The State News</p>

Head Coach Suzy Merchant yells at her bench during the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Monday, March 25, 2013, at Comcast Center in College Park, Maryland. The Spartans lost to Maryland, 74-49. Julia Nagy/The State News

Photo by Julia Nagy | The State News

MSU’s season is officially over as they lose in another tight game, this time against Iowa State in the first round of the NCAA tournament. 

Like many other teams, the Spartans season was far from normal. The Spartans had to fight COVID-19 pauses and injuries late in the season in what seemed to be the perfect storm for a disaster of a season. 

While they did avoid disaster early, starting the season 8-0, it struck in the second half of the season as the team finished 15-9, not bad, but not putting them in a high-seed position for the tournament. 

The team continually fought and showed promise, overcoming obstacles that would have derailed the seasons of a lot of teams, like injuries to key players like Tory Ozment, Taiyier Parks, Julia Ayrault and Moira Joiner that all seemed to happen at the same time.

The fight of the Spartans was shown especially during an impressive run in the Big Ten tournament where they reached the semifinals on the back of a great stretch of games by Nia Clouden, one against Indiana where she scored 27 points in the second half and Alyza Winston, who has shown she can be a reliable defender and offensive option for MSU. 

“I’m just really proud of our fight," head coach Suzy Merchant said. "It’s a young and new group that has played together, and I really see this team is special and they’re going to do great things in the future. ... This team is incredibly resilient and they’ve gotten better every time they've taken the floor.”

Luckily for MSU, the core of their team, who has grown and matured so much throughout the season, will be returning next year to hopefully get another chance to make a run in the tournament. 

“This year we had a bunch of sophomores who had their seasons cut,” Clouden said. “Next year the recruiting class is gonna be new, but the team is gonna be a lot of vets, I feel like, so I think that'll be really good.”

Clouden said the learning experiences this year will make them better leaders and more able to implement that hard work and learning with any new and incoming players next season.

While the majority of the team will be returning, the Spartans are losing emotional leaders in Mardrekia Cook and Claire Hendrickson. Despite neither Cook nor Hendrickson playing much this season because of injuries, they have been the obvious leaders for the Spartans. Cook has been described as the big sister of the team, pushing them on the court and in practice, while Hendrickson has been on the sideline being the loudest supporter for her team, serving almost as a player-coach for the Spartans. 

"Dreika (Cook) gave us everything she could physically and emotionally,” Merchant said.

Merchant believes that her team will bounce back and has players that all can pick up the leadership role that Cook had. 

“You can't be a leader of many if you're first not a leader of one,” Merchant said. “I have a locker room full of kids that I absolutely believe culture-wise, are bought in and really want to continue to push and get better.”

One area where MSU will come back stronger is simply with experience. This team only had three players with previous NCAA tournament experience. Simply playing in the tournament, win or loss, gives this group the hunger and drive that will propel them to work harder to get back to where they could have gone this year. 

Clouden said the learning experiences this year will make them better leaders and more able to implement that hard work and learning with any new and incoming players next season.

While the way this season ended definitely hurts, the Spartans will wake up tomorrow with a record of 0-0 and the pursuit of greater things begins as they look forward to a bright and successful-looking season next year.

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