Michigan State women’s basketball fought their way to their first Big Ten victory with a win over Illinois. With this win they are now 7-4 overall and 1-1 in Big Ten play.
The Spartans struggled early on offensively without junior guard Alyza Winston. They were able to keep it close until the end of the first half when the Illini went on an 11-0 run to give themselves a comfortable 34-26 lead at halftime.
Michigan State Head Coach Suzy Merchant confirmed that Winston has entered the transfer portal, leaving a shorthanded MSU team with even less depth and a huge role to fill.
"I respect what she wants to do, whatever she thinks is best for her and her family," Merchant said.
Having to step up in Winston’s absence was freshman guard DeeDee Hagemann who got her first career start as a Spartan. She brought her usual court vision to the starting lineup, finding ways to set her teammates up to score and opportunities to snag a steal to take it the other way and score for herself.
"She did well," Merchant said. "I think her second half as a facilitator was a little bit better, decisions were better in that second half. I think she's gonna have to learn to play a little bit longer minutes and play through some fatigue and overtime I think that will help. She had some really nice entry passes to to the post to set them up for easy buckets and she's great and that and we need her to do that."
She and senior guard Nia Clouden ran the court together the entire game, communicating well and building plays off each other. Clouden also gave her usual stellar performance, finishing with 17 points. Clouden had praise for the freshman's first start.
"I thought she was really great," Clouden said. "She was setting everybody up. She was playing defense. She was doing everything she normally does and today she just got to start and she was doing it from start to finish."
Junior forward Taiyier Parks was an all-around bright spot for the Spartans. Parks took charge by overpowering her opponents on both sides of the court and fought her way to the basket for a few nice layups before finishing in front of the Illini post players for some key steals and blocks to give MSU some momentum.
Her fellow post player graduate student forward Alisia Smith also used her size to force her way under the basket to put up some well-timed shots. This play from the Spartan post is exactly what the team needs in these tough Big Ten games.
The second half was just as competitive as the first. Hagemann had some key assists and freshman guard Matilda Ekh found her stride and started knocking down three-pointers, continuing her season-long trend of hitting a clutch shot whenever her team needs one. However, the Illini had some timely sharp shooters from behind the arc as well, keeping the game close.
"We did a much better job in the second half moving the ball and my teammates did a good job finding me when I was open so I was able to knock down some shots," Ekh said.
Ekh would go on to finish as the team's leading scorer with 20 points.
In the fourth quarter, the Spartans began to pull away, leading by as much as 10 at one point. After three quarters of shaky back and forth play, everyone seemed to step into their role to get the job done and pull out a victory.
The Spartans will get a break from Big Ten play when they head south Dec. 20 for the West Palm Invitational to take on Florida Gulf Coast and West Virginia. Then the Spartans will then return to East Lansing in search of their second Big Ten win when they take on Nebraska on Dec. 30.
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