Michigan State Women's Basketball (3-0) Head Coach Suzy Merchant collected her 500th career victory tonight after her Spartan ladies flipped the switch on the Valparaiso Beacons (0-3) in a 73-62 victory.
"I'm blessed that all 500 of (these wins) came from the state of Michigan," Merchant said, reminiscing on her time at Saginaw Valley, Eastern Michigan and now here. "That doesn't happen very often in our business."
For the first time this season, MSU's opponent was the one to get the board started. A driving layup from Valpo senior guard Shay Frederick put Valpo in the lead... for 10 whole seconds. Because MSU junior guard Alyza Winston immediately struck back, biting the Beacons square on the ankles with a three.
The next three minutes were a back and forth battle. Who would take the eventual lead was up in the air, juggling around basket after answered basket from both sides.
Winston as she always does was putting all of her energy on the floor. Merchant has said before that Winston has worked on restoring her motor and it certainly showed tonight. She hit a second three-pointer, pushing MSU ahead, and then knocked in a third as if to laugh in the opponent's face.
The Spartans solidified and held the lead into halftime. Winston was up to 15 points at the 20 minute marker, going 5-for-10 from the field and 4-for-6 from beyond the arc. By the end of the night, she raked in an extra two points for 17 total, along with three rebounds, three assists and one steal.
The defensive press throughout the first half from the Spartans was strong, as it has been since the start. They forced several shot clock violations on Valpo and the Beacons didn't know how to respond, utterly bewildered – it was a deer in headlights moment that lasted many seconds too long.
At the half was the first time this season that MSU and their opponent have been close in points scored. The gap was a slim eight point margin as 36-28. In the games against Niagara and Morehead, at halftime, MSU led by 23.
"We're getting thinner and thinner. ... We did go a little smaller tonight, we played Tamara at the five, just because of the style they played, which we were prepared to do, I knew we were going to have too, so we adjusted," Merchant said postgame.
Junior guard Moira Joiner and graduate forward Tamara Farquhar could be compared to that of a five dollar Little Caesars pizza coming into the second half: hot and ready. In the third quarter alone, the duo dropped 11 points, topping their entire first half performance of a combined eight points.
"My team believes in me, so it was easy for me to play with confidence tonight," Farquhar said. "I think I fulfilled my role. I wanted to just make sure I defended and, honestly, I think I could have done better on that side of the ball, but I made up for it in terms of rebounding, which is one of my biggest roles I think."
I'm in grad school, so I've missed a lot of the practices, but I think that everyone has been doing a great job at filling me in on things I miss. That's been the biggest difficulty for me (in my transition here so far), but I think with these three games thing are starting to roll," she added.
At 6:03 left in the third, Joiner threw her body into a crowd of Beacons to smack a rebound to Winston. While the Spartans did not manage to capitalize, they were able to box Valpo redshirt senior guard Carie Weinman into the corner and throw their heads for a loop once again.
The duo finished the night with 21 total points, 17 rebounds, five assists and two steals. Joiner was helped to the locker room with 24 seconds left in regulation play after hitting her head hard enough to draw out tears.
Freshman guard/forward Matilda Ekh added 11 more points to the final board, as well as two rebounds and two assists.
Despite the numerous successes, senior guard Nia Clouden, on the other hand, was not her typical, bucket dropping self.
At halftime, she had four assists, but only a mere three points and two personal fouls. Merchant had her benched two to three minutes into the second quarter. She didn't score again until under five minutes into the third quarter and managed to edge double digits with 11 points going into the fourth.
Clouden finished the night like normal, with 18 total points, nine rebounds, seven assists, two blocks and a steal.
"I think I settled into the game (in the second half)," Clouden said postgame. "I picked up some fouls in the first half, but second half I came out and tried to see what I could do to help the team, whether that was with points, assists or rebounds – just try to help any way I can."
"Nia is Nia," Merchant said. "Great players show up, first half, second half, both halves. ... The thing that I like about Nia is, it isn't just about her scoring. ... It wasn't just like, 'Hey give me the ball and let me take shots.' She really created for other people and had some big plays for us."
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It is worth noting that guard DeeDee Hagemann earned Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors, though she was not in attendance at tonight's game. Merchant said postgame that she has the flu.
The Michigan State Spartans (3-0) will host the Bryant Bulldogs (0-3) next on Friday, Nov. 19 for MSU Day. Tip-off is scheduled for noon on Big Ten Plus. This will conclude their season-opening, four game homestand.
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