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Michigan State's terrific trio of freshmen lead to victory over No. 4 Michigan

February 11, 2022
<p>Freshman guard DeeDee Hagemann (0) shoots the ball during the game against Michigan on Feb. 10, 2022, at the Breslin Center. The Spartans defeated the Wolverines 63-57.</p>

Freshman guard DeeDee Hagemann (0) shoots the ball during the game against Michigan on Feb. 10, 2022, at the Breslin Center. The Spartans defeated the Wolverines 63-57.

Photo by Lauren Snyder | The State News

It’s not normal for a freshman to be in the starting lineup, let alone two. And it’s not normal for a freshman to average 20 or more minutes on the court, in the place of veterans. But that’s one thing Michigan State women’s basketball isn’t — normal.

After losing four starting veteran players to the woes of season-ending injuries and the dreaded transfer portal, Michigan State Head Coach Suzy Merchant watched her team slip beneath the cracks. They went from 4-0 at home to 1-6 on the road and even dipped below 50% in conference play for a brief minute. She knew she had to do something. And fast.

But, what to do, that was the real question. What could she do with half of her roster in their first year? She couldn’t possibly depend on a couple of freshmen to carry the same momentum as senior guard Nia Clouden. She couldn’t expect a couple of freshmen to score points in high-intensity games, getting around people like senior forward Naz Hillmon of Michigan and Iowa sophomore guard Caitlin Clark.

Yet, here they are.

“DeeDee and Matilda were kids that had a lot of experience prior to coming here,” Merchant said after Wednesday’s practice. “Isa, when she was in Canada, they were shut down for almost … a year and a half, so she couldn’t even go in a gym and get a shot up. You think about a kid coming into your power-five BCS and, regardless of if you’re a guard or a post, and not being able to play for (that long). It’s weird. It’s a difficult hurdle to get over, to get that rust off, get into playing shape, and your skills, they wouldn’t even open a gym to get on a treadmill. She could dribble in her driveway and shoot kind of thing, but I’m not sure how much you can do that in a Canadian winter.”

“So, (in fairness), she’s come around a little bit later than the other two,” Merchant continued. “I’m proud of what they’re doing. We’re asking them to play bigger roles than they should and Isa hasn’t been there yet, but we’re really starting to see some things out of her at practice and, (in turn), are rewarding her with some playing time. We’re going to need her down the stretch.”

Now 13-10 overall, 7-5 in the Big Ten and they just pulled off the upset of the season against their in-state rival, who was leading the conference and ranked No. 4 in the nation with only two other losses to Louisville and Nebraska.

Without a doubt in mind, Merchant has one of the best freshman classes in the conference, and maybe even the league, with Ekh, Alexander and Hagemann.

Especially for someone like Alexander, who came to MSU after not being able to get on a court for roughly 15 months due to COVID-19 restrictions in Canada. Especially for someone like Ekh, who flew across the globe to participate in this coveted program based on a “good gut feeling” she said she had when she first met Merchant in Sweden. Especially for someone like Hagemann, who took a leap from the hometown spotlight and onto a national stage.

Regardless, they have prevailed.

Last night against the Wolverines, Alexander, Ekh and Hagemann contributed on every side of the ball and in more ways than one.

“Our freshmen, they were really big,” Clouden said. “They came in and did their jobs. Isa was playing great defense on Naz in the fourth quarter. Tilly was able to get big shots and DeeDee was finding everybody open.”

Ekh was having an off night, shooting only 2-for-8 from the field, and she recognized that post game, but when she was needed most, she was able to net two clutch three-pointers from long-range to solidify the Spartans’ lead.

“They were both daggers,” Michigan Head Coach Kim Barnes-Arico said postgame of the Swedish superstar. “We had the game cut. We did amazing defense. Both of them she hit with, I think, under two seconds on the shot clock and they were just crushing. Obviously, we defended our butt off for the entire possession and those were the two baskets she made. Most people would look at the box score and say she didn’t have a great night, when she really made two of the biggest plays in the game.”

“I missed all my chucks until those two at the end,” Ekh said. “The shots at the beginning kind of got to my head a little bit, so I’m very glad that I was able to (manage something). … It was a very fun game to play.”

Alexander led the charge under the net at the five, using her wingspan and the singular inch she had over Hillmon to make key blocks that kept the Wolverines’ score down to only 11 points in the third quarter alone. She set several career-highs between three blocks, four rebounds, three free throws attempted and made, all in yet another career-high of 16 minutes on the court.

“Tonight, I really, truly, felt like myself, like when I was playing every single day in grade 11,” Alexander said. “I think it happened really naturally, and it just came out, so that was really great. I didn’t have to force anything. I also really appreciate my teammates. They had my back the whole time and they were really supportive in practice as well because they were starting to see I was starting to get back to my old self.”

“Her mobility has been good,” Merchant said after Wednesday’s practice. “She’s got the ability to crush and trap a ball screen. She does have a really high IQ for the game. I think her speed and her size have helped her a little bit. Her concepts now, she’s not thinking as much and being a little more instinctive on her duck-ins and aggressive rebounding.”

Lastly, Hagemann posted up nine assists, most of them coming in tense, end-of-the-shot-clock moments where all five Michigan players were pounding down the center or pressing out their best player in Clouden. She set a career-high seven rebounds, five defensive and two offensive, and also posted nine points, which Merchant said is pretty good for a freshman in a game like this.

“They were coming at her pretty good with ball screen action, so we had to adjust that a little bit for her,” Merchant said postgame. “We’ve been asking her to do a better job on the defensive boards, especially to go in there and clean up some of those ones that are kind of batted around. Naz is hard to keep off the glass. She is a force to be reckoned with so we were trying to box her out, but when you do that, sometimes it’s hard to get the rebounds at the same time.”

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You could say they settled into the rivalry well for it being their first year and that the program will definitely be in good hands when a hopeful Clouden graduates and likely enlists into the WNBA Draft this spring.

“I try to be the leader and lead by example, in case they’re looking at me and seeing how a senior point guard should act,” Clouden said after Wednesday’s practice. “It’s a little bit of pressure but I think (I’ve been dealing with that) my whole life, playing basketball.”

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