Wednesday, August 17, 2022

'They just never quit:' The gritty 2021-22 Spartans become Suzy Merchant's favorite squad

March 4, 2022
Clouden (24) and Hagemann (0) team up to guard Ohio State's Taylor Mikesell (24) in the Spartans’ contest against the Buckeyes at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. - March 4, 2022.
Clouden (24) and Hagemann (0) team up to guard Ohio State's Taylor Mikesell (24) in the Spartans’ contest against the Buckeyes at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. - March 4, 2022. —
Photo by Chloe Trofatter | The State News

After losing to Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals, Michigan State women's basketball's NCAA tournament hopes have officially been dashed. Although the season didn't end the way they wanted, Michigan State Head Coach Suzy Merchant couldn't be prouder of her team for giving it their all and stepping up in the face of adversity.

“They just never quit,” Merchant said. “You lose four starters, all upper-classmen to begin the year in some fashion, it puts a lot on a lot of people. A lot of these kids played out of position, really long minutes, too long, but their heart was there.”

The Spartans lost veterans senior forward Tory Ozment and junior forward Julia Ayrault days before the season began leaving a huge gap for new and less experienced players to fill. Then in early December, junior guard Alyza Winston transferred to Mississippi State, and not long after that junior guard Moira Joiner was ruled out for the season due to concussion protocol. All four were starters.

In their absence, the freshmen have been forced to play much bigger roles than expected taking a “next man up” approach. Freshman guard DeeDee Hagemann and freshman forward Matilda Ekh appeared in the starting lineup for most of the season. Ekh started every game except for Senior Day and Hagemann entered the starting lineup after Winston transferred.

Freshman forward Isaline Alexander also stepped up for the Spartans towards the end of the season, having a breakout game against rival Michigan in which she finished with seven points and four rebounds to help her shorthanded team take down the No. 4 team in the country at the time.

“This team easily could have folded,” Merchant said. “You lose four starts that are all juniors and seniors. That is a lot of experience and a lot of scoring and depth. There was one point in the game when Matilda was like, ‘You gotta take me out,’ and I can't tell you how many times I said, 'I just can't. I gotta ride with you.' So I am very very proud of them.”

With all the unexpected losses, the team never stopped and felt sorry for themselves. They just kept going.

“I'm emotional because I feel like it is one of the best groups of kids,” Merchant said. “It's easy to point blame, feel sorry for yourself nowadays especially that Gen-Z crew, but they never did that.”

It's because of the way they continued to step up game after game that she calls this team her favorite. Even though she said that every coach will say every team is their favorite, she truly meant it when she said it through some uncharacteristic tears after Friday's loss.

“I'm so proud,” Merchant said. “I've coached a lot of great players and won championships, had great postseason opportunities but out of all the teams I've coached ... this team by far is my number one favorite team because they handled all the adversity with such class and toughness and they never laid down. ... Some of the emotion comes from the fact that I wanted it so bad for a team that gave everything they had.”

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