Being a top-rated player coming into your first season in the NCAA has its occasional and disappointing lows. But, as fans have seen today with freshman forward Matilda Ekh, they're survivable and redeemable.
Ekh opened her journey in the green and white in the starting five. Not many freshmen do, especially when there is veteran talent that can and will do better in that place, most of the time.
However, with a lot of injury adversity plaguing the perimeter skill of the program, there was never a doubt in Michigan State Head Coach Suzy Merchant's mind that Ekh would be the right filler.
Between the Spartan's season opener versus Morehead State, where Ekh connected for 11 points in 25 minutes on 57.1% field shooting and 40% beyond the glorious arc that would later become her home, Ekh accomplished a lot.
In eight of the 14 games in that time span, she produced double digits, averaging between eight and 11.3 points per game. Her offensive ability to meet the net, as if glue were attached to the rim and the ball, made up for her lack on the defensive end.
Shortly into 2022, Ekh reached her peak. In a stretch of four games, she set a career-high 27 points at Ohio State on Jan. 12, she scored her third 20-plus point game with 23 against Minnesota on Jan. 23 and she became second on the team in scoring, only shadowed by senior guard Nia Clouden's 20-plus per game average.
However, much like the narrative of a novel, once you reach your peak, you begin downward trending to the conclusion.
It's typical, and expected, for a freshman to have their moments, both good and bad. No one expects you to be a legend from start to finish. You have to build up to it.
Ekh found herself in a slump as the regular season came to a close. In the last two games before the tournament, against Michigan and Ohio State, she recorded a mere four points in 65 minutes, going 2-for-25 from the field on 7.1–9.1% shooting and absolutely zero luck from beyond the arc.
The Swedish sensation was stuck. But that's probably what made her comeback in Michigan State's 73-69 victory over Purdue in the second round opener of the Big Ten Tournament that much sweeter.
This morning, Ekh managed to pull together her 18th double-digit game in her first season, finishing with 10 points, four rebounds and three assists on the bed of two personal fouls.
"I just talked to her a little bit about a couple things," Merchant said postgame. "Number one, ... are you taking the right shots? Are they open, and are they in flow and are they the right shots to take? When you're a coach, that's what you want to do. You want to make sure you get the right people get the shot. ... The rest of it will take care of itself."
"The other thing that I talked to her about the other day was like, 'Listen, everybody's going to run at you. When you're open, you take them; you always shoot the ball,'" Merchant added. "I was trying to talk to her a little bit more about shot-faking. ... Shot fake first and then shot fake at the end, because what she does is she catches it and puts it down right away, and she's not super athletic in terms of speed."
"If she can catch the ball more in her scoring pocket and look more for the shot fake before she drives, she didn't do that tonight but that's probably a little bit unnatural for her, so that way, maybe if someone gets really into her space and she shot fakes, now if she drives she's got that little pull up jumper or the rip and take to the rim, just to get herself going."
She had two pretty stellar plays in the game that said, "Hey, I'm back!"
The first was at the start of the second quarter when freshman guard DeeDee Hagemann scooped an open rebound up to get Ekh the ball down the stretch. She knocked in her first three of the game, her first since Feb. 21 against Penn State, in at that moment, and the crowd went wild.
"I was proud of her for the possession when she missed the shot, we got the rebound and kicked it back out to her for a window three and she hit that one," Merchant said. "She's taking the right shots, and she's a good shooter, so we do need her to score and it was great to see her finally knock some down after the last two games."
The other play was also in the second quarter, nearing halftime, when graduate student forward Tamara Farquhar stole the ball from the Boilermakers and was able to drive it up the court on the fast break, getting it around to Ekh for a swift layup that held their lead.
"I thought Matilda was great," Clouden said. "She definitely bounced back. She hasn't been worried about those two games, where she didn't play her best, at all. She's just been in the gym working. She played really well, she played her game, got to open spots and it made our job easier."
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