After claiming its first road win of the season by 30 points against Central Michigan last week, Michigan State women's basketball will test its undefeated mark on the season (6-0) in the Phil Knight Invitational in Portland, Oregon.
The four-team tournament will include No. 5 Iowa State, No. 8 North Carolina and No. 18 Oregon. The unranked Spartans will take on the Cyclones (4-0) on Thanksgiving eve at 7:30 p.m. on ESPNU.
The last time MSU was in the PK80 was back in 2017 when it lost its first game of the season to No. 1 Connecticut by a score of 96-62.
This will be the seventh ever meeting between MSU and Iowa State as each team has three wins against each other. The Spartans will be looking for some revenge though as the Cyclones knocked them out of MSU's last NCAA Tournament appearance in 2021.
Head Coach Suzy Merchant is expecting a tough match against Iowa State as she believes her team's press might not be as effective as it has been against some of the other opponents her squad has faced so far this season.
"We haven't really been battle tested yet," Merchant said. "So we'll see what we're made of a little bit. Iowa State is as good as they come, they got a first-round draft pick, they can really shoot it and handle it. ... Ashley Joens is a matchup nightmare. They've added a 6'6 NAIA player ... she is very skilled and can shoot threes. You're playing a very fundamentally skilled team. They're not very deep, but they have high levels of motor. ... We need to be able to score the ball in the quarter court as well as pressing people."
Senior guard/forward Ashley Joens comes into the game against MSU averaging 25.5 points per game, which is good for a ranking of sixth in the nation and first in the Big 12. Merchant has also stated her concerns with her team's rebounding ability and they could have a big problem on their hands with senior forward/center Stephanie Soares coming into the game averaging 7.4 boards a contest for ISU. She also averages 15.3 points a game.
To make things tougher for the Spartans, they will be without sophomore forward and leading scorer Matilda Ekh for the first game of the tournament as she will be playing for the Swedish National Team.
While Merchant believes that it will be tougher to win without her, she also sees this as an opportunity for other players to step up.
"That's going to be a little bit troublesome for us," Merchant said. "She's our best three-point shooter, kind of a calming presence out there, someone we go to a lot. So you know, we're gonna be a little off ourselves, just this first game, just not having a kid that we normally have, and have relied on for like the last year or so. It'll be a little different. But I also look at it where opportunity for other kids step up, whether they are transfers or freshmen, it gives them an opportunity to play."
With Ekh being out against a tough opponent, the bench will have to step up. Sophomore forward Isaline Alexander thinks that her unit can give teams difficulties.
"I think that's really important and really good for us," Alexander said. "Last year, we didn't have as much of a deep bench with injuries and a bunch of other stuff. This year, knowing that we have more options is just gonna give teams a harder time regardless, because if they can stop one of us then there is 15 to 16 other people that can just do the same thing."
Alexander is excited not only because she gets to play a team that she is quite familiar with, as Iowa State recruited her and she has played against some of its players in Canada, but also for the fact that the squad will get to test itself against a very strong opponent.
"I think it's a good opportunity for us," Alexander said. "We'll be able to showcase like what we have against a team that's been great for however many years that they've been great for. I think it's gonna be an opportunity for us to really push ourselves and see where we really are against the top caliber team."
The winner will move on to play in the tournament championship game between the winner of the Tar Heels and the Ducks on Sunday at 7:30 p.m. while the first two defeated teams will face off in the third place game on the same day at 1 p.m.
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