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'We'll be alright': After losing Alyza Winston to the transfer portal, Hagemann and Ekh fill the void

December 10, 2021
<p>Freshman guard Matilda Ekh (11) rushes past Illinois&#x27; defense during the third quarter. The Spartans beat the Fighting Illini, 75-60, in their Big Ten opener on Dec. 9, 2021. </p>

Freshman guard Matilda Ekh (11) rushes past Illinois' defense during the third quarter. The Spartans beat the Fighting Illini, 75-60, in their Big Ten opener on Dec. 9, 2021.

Photo by Lauren DeMay | The State News

The last thing Michigan State women’s basketball needed was another player out after injuries benched their veteran forwards Tory Ozment and Julia Ayrault.

In this day and age though, nobody can be safe from the transfer portal, even if you’re one of the stars of your squad.

With the sudden departure of junior guard Alyza Winston, the Spartans suddenly needed a lot more out of a roster that didn’t have much to give. In the first half against the Fighting Illini, it appeared that the tank was running empty.

Leading by three against a rebuilding Illinois squad, the Spartans were still struggling to score despite the lead. With the dynamic guards that Illinois had, it was only a matter of time before the shots started to fall.

The Illini ended the first half on an 11-0 run and went into the locker room with an eight point lead after holding the Spartans to a measly 26 points in the first half.

The Spartans looked dead in the water without their star guard.

Freshman guard DeeDee Hagemann was the one to replace Winston in the starting lineup and she would be the one to revive her squad in the second half.

After graduate student center Alisia Smith’s shot clanged off the back of the rim, Hagemann’s 5-foot-7 frame rose above the Illini defenders for the offensive rebound and kicked it out to fellow freshman guard Matilda Ekh for the second chance bucket to break the Spartans’ long scoring drought.

“I kept telling DeeDee, ‘You gotta find Matilda, she’s got a hot hand, we gotta feed that kid,’” Merchant said. “Everyone on the court should have known where she’s at.”

They didn’t look back.

The connection between Ekh and Hagemann reigned supreme in the second half as Hagemann’s passing led to Ekh’s barrage from beyond the arc. Hagemann’s five assists and Ekh’s 4-for-4 from the three point line helped the Spartans reclaim the lead heading into the fourth quarter — and eventually the win.

“I like their chemistry together,” Merchant said. “I thought as freshman, that’s a pretty big stage to have to come in and play that many minutes. DeeDee played 34 minutes and Matilda played 35, that’s logging a lot of minutes and to perform at a high level I thought they did a great job for us today.”

With Winston’s departure, Hagemann will have to be more than just the distributor that she has been. She will have to be a key contributor in effort and assists going forward to keep their goals in sight.

“She’s going to have to learn to play longer minutes and play through some fatigue and over time I think that will help,” Merchant said. “I thought in the second half she was focusing on where people were and she had some really nice entry passes into the post to set them up for some easy buckets.”

Playing off Hagemann, Ekh sees how vital Hagemann’s role is going forward.

“She’s our point guard, the offense starts with her,” Ekh said. “She was starting to move the ball which created our offense.”

Ekh’s role is just as important going forward though. Ekh may be a freshman here in the States, but in Sweden she was a full-blown pro. That was evident Thursday night.

Ekh’s shooting stroke is as clean as they come, and her basketball IQ is something to behold at such a young age.

“I felt good,” Ekh said. “It’s such a big difference to make the first two (three-pointers). That changes the game for me.”

Senior guard Nia Clouden went on to finish the game with her typical strong stat line of 17 points and four assists. Clouden knows a thing or two about having to step up after starting games as a freshman when she first arrived in East Lansing.

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The team leader saw that same maturity she saw in herself just a few years ago.

“I’m really proud of her and ‘Tilly (Matilda),” Clouden said. “Her and ‘Tilly played a lot more mature than freshman.‘”

Winston’s departure came as a surprise to the squad according to Michigan State Head Coach Suzy Merchant, but the duo of Hagemann and Ekh proved that the team can still hold it together with the best of them.

“We’ll be alright, we’re just going to keep fighting and playing together,” Merchant said. “I really like our team, I really do, just a  good energy about 'em.”

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