EAST LANSING – With the Big Ten Tournament only a week away, the Michigan State Spartans took on the Penn State Nittany Lions Monday. The Spartans were looking to grab their 15th win of the season, instead, MSU suffered a crushing 79-71 defeat, placing any NCAA Tournament hopes on life support.
This was a game the Spartans needed to have to keep any hopes of an NCAA Tournament bid alive, with only three more games guaranteed the rest of the season. However, The Spartans simply lacked urgency and it ultimately cost them the win.
“In this league, everyone is good enough to beat you,” Michigan State head coach Suzy Merchant said. “We don’t have time to whine and cry about it, the players know that they need to be better.”
The game did not start off well for the Spartans as they turned it over four times and allowed the Nittany Lions to shoot 47% (7-for-15) in the opening quarter. The Nittany Lions also went to the free-throw line 10 times in the quarter and led the Spartans 29-19 at the end of the first.
Penn State guard Makenna Marisa, the Big Ten’s second-leading scorer coming into the game with an average of 22.4 points per contest, got off to a good start offensively, leading all scorers with nine points in the opening frame.
Michigan State guard DeeDee Hagemann took a hard fall and hit her head in the first few minutes, but the freshman later returned to action before the end of the quarter. Hagemann missed MSU’s last game against Wisconsin after being placed in concussion protocol.
Hagemann came into the game only three assists shy of Kiana Johnson for fifth-most assists all-time by a Spartan freshman. She would pass Johnson late in the second quarter after recording her fourth assist in the game and 130th of the season on a Taiyier Parks jumper.
“(Hagemann) is not afraid of the moment or anything like that,” Merchant said. “I think she’s a good assist guy, should have had more assists but our bigs weren’t really finishing in there.”
Merchant was disappointed overall in the post-play tonight. “Our urgency was very disappointing…It makes it difficult when your posts can’t guard on the perimeter and are not doing their job inside,” said Merchant.
The rest of the second quarter consisted of more of the same for the Spartans, as they seemed to lack discipline on both ends, especially defensively, as four players entered halftime with two or more fouls. Losing players to foul trouble meant the Spartans’ depth had to be tested once again, trailing 42-34 at the break.
Matilda Ekh nailed a three-pointer in the first half to gain sole possession of tenth place on the Spartan freshman scoring list. Ekh would score 14 points in the contest and later pass Julie Pagel Dombrowski for ninth on the list, with a season total of 318 points.
In the third quarter, the Spartans tried to turn to the paint for answers. Parks began exerting her will down low and brought the Spartans within five points with two quick buckets in the lane. This output from Parks was key as senior guard Nia Clouden struggled from the field, only taking nine total shots through three quarters.
The difference in the game was fast-break points. PSU outscored MSU 26-9 in transition during the game and feasted off of 12 Spartan turnovers. The Nittany Lions were consistently in the passing lanes and made life difficult for the Spartans to get into any sort of offensive rhythm. The Nittany Lions entered the fourth quarter with a 55-48 advantage.
The Spartans had trimmed the lead to four points with just over eight minutes to go, but a Niya Beverley three-pointer for Penn State opened the game back up.
With 3:10 left in the game, Ekh knocked down a clutch, contested three-pointer, to cut the Nittany Lions’ lead to 67-64. After two Nittany Lions’ free throws, Hagemann followed with another three-pointer to pull the Spartans within two.
No matter how hard or often MSU punched, Penn State had an answer on the other end. The Spartans, however, simply had no answer for Marisa, who finished with a game-high 32 points, including a dagger and-1 jumper with under 90 seconds to go, putting the Nittany Lions up by five.
Clouden led the Spartans with 17 points and seven points in the final frame while the two freshmen, Ekh and Hagemann, chipped in with 14 and 12 points respectively.
“At this level, it’s just a little bit disappointing that we don’t have people that can step up and put pressure on the opponent,” Merchant said.
MSU fell to 14-12 (8-7) this season and PSU improved to 11-15 (5-11). MSU’s next game will be on the road on Feb. 24 when the Spartans travel to Ann Arbor for a rematch with the No. 6 ranked Michigan Wolverines.