MSU lands first conference win of 2021 over Illinois 75-60, snaps two-game skid


MSU guard Deedee Hagemann attempts a jumpshot over Notre Dame guard Olivia Miles during the Spartans’ 76-71 loss to the Fighting Irish on Dec. 2, 2021/ Photo Credit: Sarah Smith/WDBM

Marin Klein, Women's Basketball Beat Reporter

EAST LANSING, Mich — On Thursday evening, the Michigan State Spartans played an overall solid game and came out with a 75-60 victory against the Illinois Fighting Illini in their Big Ten home opener. 

With the win, the Spartans improved to 7-4 on the season; it was also the first Power Five win of the season for MSU. For MSU, it also snapped a two-game losing streak dating back to Dec. 2. 

The Spartans were led in scoring by freshman forward Matilda Ekh and her career-high 20 points. Ekh, who was 6-for-9 from 3-point range, also had help from senior guard Nia Clouden. She contributed 17 points while graduate forward Alisia Smith had a commendable game with 13 points and five rebounds on 6-for-9 shooting from the floor.

“Everyone on the court should know where Matilda is at,” head coach Suzy Merchant said.

In the first quarter, the Spartans came out strong with an early 7-4 lead, but the Fighting Illini answered quickly. MSU forced six turnovers and four steals in the first, but it also shot only 6-for-18 from the floor. As a result of the Fighting Illini’s 8-for-13 shooting performance, the Spartans found themselves trailing 21-18 at the end of one.  

In the second quarter, both teams came out strong on defense and kept the score low. MSU continued to steal the ball away from Illinois with regularity,  but it struggled to get the ball into the net when it pried the ball away. The Fighting Illini were overaggressive in trying to regain possession to get the ball; this resulted in multiple turnovers and fouls, ultimately helping the Spartans pull ahead. 

MSU guards Alyza Winston (left), Nia Clouden (24) and Matilda Ekh (right)/ Photo Credit: Sarah Smith/WDBM

Overall in the game, MSU outscored Illinois in points off turnovers 23-6. It also outscored the Fighting Illini 9-4 on the fast break.

The Spartans defense kept Illinois from shooting the ball particularly well, even resulting in some shot clock violations. However, the Spartans’ lead was short-lived as they continued to struggle to make their shots, allowing Illinois to take the lead 34-26 going into the half. 

MSU was only 3-for-12 from the floor in the second quarter, much worse than Illinois’ 5-for-13 mark. As a team, MSU shot the ball 30% in the first half.

As the Spartans head into Big Ten play, Merchant is keeping her starters in more, with substitutions from players we have already seen a lot of like senior forward Tamara Farquhar and junior forward Taiyier Parks. She mentioned earlier in the season that she was glad that some younger players had been seeing the court more than they normally would, but now that the team has reached Big Ten play, she needs her starters on the court with veteran forwards Tory Ozment and Julia Ayrault out for the year.

Out of the intermission, the Spartans started to punch back against the Fighting Illini. The very low shooting percentages for MSU began to climb as the Fighting Illini’s dropped. This game stayed very low scoring, with both teams playing strong defense in the post and out on the perimeter.

By virtue of shooting 11-for-16 in the third quarter, the Spartans erased that eight-point halftime deficit and led Illinois 52-51 at the end of three.

MSU guard Deedee Hagemann drives past Irish guard Olivia Miles during the Spartans’ 76-71 loss to the Fighting Irish on Dec. 2, 2021/ Photo Credit: Sarah Smith/WDBM

MSU also shot 4-for-5 in the third and were led by Ekh, who made six 3-pointers in the game.

The last quarter of the game was dominated by MSU. The Spartans shot 7-for-11 from the floor and limited the Fighting Illini to a 4-for-14 fourth quarter. Illinois, who were outscored 23-9 in the final frame, dropped to 4-5 on the season with the loss. 

The biggest question going into today’s match was how the Spartans would respond to junior guars Alyza Winston entering the transfer portal earlier on Thursday. In her absence, freshman guard DeeDee Hagemann made her way into the starting lineup and performed admirably with eight points, eight assists and three rebounds in 34 minutes of action.  

As the Spartans head into Big Ten play, Merchant is keeping her starters in more, with substitutions from players including senior forward Tamara Farquhar and junior forward Taiyier Parks. Farquhar, the Purdue transfer, received 26 minutes of action while Parks played in 23 minutes. Only seven Spartans received more than 15 minutes of playing time.

Parks had 10 points and four rebounds; Farquhar chipped in with four points and five boards of her own.

In the postgame, Merchant stated she felt good about Hagemann’s performance and is ready to see her get accustomed to playing more minutes and reading the court with more precision as a primary ball-handler, which will allow Clouden to play more off-the-ball.  

The Spartans look to continue this success as they travel to Florida in the West Palm Invitational where they will face Florida Gulf Coast on Dec. 20th and West Virginia on Dec. 21 before resuming Big Ten play at home against Nebraska on Dec. 30