When senior guard Nia Clouden decides to hang up her green and white jersey for the very last time, she knows she has nothing to worry about. The future of the program should be, and is definitely, in good hands with freshmen forward Matilda Ekh and guard DeeDee Hagemann at the helm.
Forced to grow up too quickly in a season plagued by injury adversities that decimated their veteran talent, Ekh and Hagemann have been Michigan State Head Coach Suzy Merchant's go-to ballers from the start.
“It makes me feel really good,” Clouden said following their 74-58 loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament Semifinals. “I've watched DeeDee and Tilly, all the freshmen, mature over the season and, like coach said, we've had a lot of adversity. They've had to grow up really fast and I think when next year comes, and the next three years to follow, they'll be handling it no problem and they'll only continue to improve. They're both hard workers and I'm glad that they're here.”
While Hagemann was not made available for comment postgame, Ekh said she doesn't feel a lot of pressure about moving forward with the wheel in her hands. She and Hagemann are only small pieces of the program's puzzle, in her eyes, and there's a lot more under the surface from the bench and the injured that will come forth with time, patience and practice.
“I don't fell like it's just me (or DeeDee),” Ekh said. “We do a good job playing together, (as a whole team).”
Merchant said Ekh and Hagemann have got to be near juniors in skill and ability with the number of minutes they logged over the 2021-22 season, regular and post. She joked that they skipped the sophomore status and went straight from a rookie to veteran status.
Ekh played for 1,020 minutes in 30 games, becoming a member of the starting five during the season opener against Morehead State on Nov. 9 and continuing to hold that presence for every game other than Senior Night, where graduate guard Laurel Jacqmain was given the start.
She averaged 11.4 points per game, completing her 18th game in double figures yesterday against Purdue in a sugary sweet comeback and ending the season on the freshman all-time scoring list at No. 9 with 353 points total. She was named to the All-Freshman Team and earned an All-Big honorable mention alongside Hagemann.
Hagemann didn't become a starter until junior guard Alyza Winston left Michigan State for Mississippi State on Dec. 9. From there, even on Senior Night, she deservingly played in that elite crowd alongside Clouden, graduate forwards Alisia Smith and Tamara Farquhar and, of course, Ekh logging 861 minutes total.
Her vision of the court made her an offensive genius and, while she didn't help too much on the scoring end of things, she dished 144 assists to boost her team victorious in some key games and land her No. 2 in MSU history for most helpers in a freshman season.
Everyone has their place and the pair made theirs very clear, time and time again.
The minutes they spent on the court have only made them stronger. Even when they begged to come off and catch a breath, as they both did in the Big Ten Tournament at some point Merchant said, it made them understand the collegiate level of play better and it prepared them to be well ahead of the curve in their next three years.
“What they had to endure this year and the way they did it as freshmen, it's pretty impressive,” Merchant said postgame. “There's room for improvement. They're willing to accept some of that and know they have some work in the offseason, but those two freshmen logged ... a ton of minutes and we had to rely on both of them in their roles to even be successful (as a whole).”
“Freshmen, it's always interesting what process and what journey they take,” Merchant continued. “They might've been better had they had more rest, but they were very, very good. If there is a silver lining, a blessing in disguise, the fact that those two were starters and played 40 minutes a game in tough situations, won not quite enough, good games and bad games, that's part of the journey. ... Every freshman, I always say, your journey is different and if you're willing to buy into the process, believe by work ethic and putting yourself into the game that there's good things ahead, (it'll pay off).”
“We're excited about the future and what we have coming in (Theryn Hallock and Abbey Kimball) and we'll be in good shape,” she added. “I hope people stick processes out. I know it's easy not to nowadays, but I think we have some kids that will be very effective for us outside of those two in the future.”
Ohio State senior guard Taylor Mikesell said, from an outside perspective and having gotten to work under Merchant one summer in the Pan American Games, she really appreciates how much love and effort Merchant puts into the team and her role as commander of the program.
“You can see how much she cares about them,” she said.
Ohio State Head Coach Kevin McGuff added that he thinks the Spartans have a good range of talent under Merchant's historic coaching bible.
“The young kids are good and that gives them a very bright future,” he said.
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