Spartans survive Central Michigan in the first round of the NCAA tournament


Sam Britten, Women's basketball reporter

NOTRE DAME, Ind. – The Spartans traveled to Notre Dame to take on the No. 8-seeded Central Michigan Chippewas for their first tournament appearance since the 2016-17 season. It was a wild game that kept fans entertained until the clock hit zero.

This nailbiter of a game came down to the final buzzer. After a Shay Colley layup gave Michigan State an 88-87 lead, Central Michigan had the ball with 7.6 seconds to go. The Chippewas inbounded the ball to Presley Hudson who was double-teamed, Hudson passed out of the double to Mikaela Kelly for a three on the left wing, barely getting the shot off before the buzzer as the ball clanged off the rim.

The Spartans survived by the skin of their teeth. A 54-43 lead the Spartans had built in the second quarter didn’t mean much, as the game quickly became a back-and-forth battle down to the final moments.

“[I’m] just really proud of this group,” said Suzy Merchant. “We’ve had some really great moments in our season and we’ve struggled at times. Just to see them come together I thought they were really committed on both sides of the ball.”

Fans were on the edge of their seats for the entirety of the last quarter, as there were 13 lead changes in the last five and a half minutes of the game, including three in the last minute. Colley showed off her elite scoring abilities on the game-winner, as she was on the right wing, drove to the post, dribbled between two defenders and laid the ball in to give her team the lead.

“Coach trusted me to make that last play and I did,” said Colley. “[I’m] just happy that I have my teammates and coaching staff behind me.”

Coming off of a 71-55 loss to Maryland in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament, the Spartans were looking for redemption after a disappointing finish to Big Ten play. Winning in the first round of the NCAA tournament against a tough mid-major team in Central Michigan is a great way to get back on track.

It was a dogfight of a game, and a large crowd at the Joyce Center was rocking. After the first few minutes of the second quarter, the margin stayed at around three to four points for most of the game, with each team simply exchanging blows on possession after possession.

Michigan State was effective all around, as seven of its eight players had points in the first half. The story is quite different for Central Michigan, Reyna Frost had 25 of her team’s 40 first-half points, finishing with 34 points on the day.

For the first two quarters of play, two of Central Michigan’s “big three” showed up, but Presley Hudson was nowhere to be found until the fourth quarter. She had just six points through three quarters. Despite finishing with 20 points, her late start affected the Chippewas’ play. McCutcheon played great defense to keep the star guard on lockdown and unable to answer.

Unlike many past games, there wasn’t a third-quarter slump today. Michigan State has had some notably weak quarters this season, and most of them have generally occurred in the third. The Spartans had something to say about these woes, storming out of the locker room on a 13-3 run over the first 2:31 of the second half.

Five Spartan scorers finished in double digits and all but one player scored. It might seem as though Michigan State didn’t shoot many jumpers after being effective in the paint, but the Spartans shot 41 percent on 17 3-pointers attempted. Four of those were made by Taryn McCutcheon, who finished with 12 points for the game.

Nia Clouden finished with 16 points, while Colley and Jenna Allen closed with 13 points and 10 points, respectively.

“I feel like as a team we’re sharing the ball more at the end of the year,” said McCutcheon. “I think right now everybody’s feeling good on offense.”

Despite Michigan State spreading the ball around, Sidney Cooks stood above all Spartan scorers with 21 points off the bench while shooting 71 percent.

Michigan State also made all 11 of its free throws after struggling at the line during portions of the year, at times shooting under 70 percent. Take one of those points away and the Spartans might’ve been heading home today.

The Spartans aren’t done yet, as they advance to the second round of the tournament for the first time since the 2015-16 season. Sidney Cooks feels good about her team’s confidence going forward.

“[We’re] definitely confident,” said Cooks. “We know everyone’s abilities on this team and I think if we just really lock in on roles and just mentally prepare ourselves for the next team, we can really beat anybody.”

After Notre Dame put a 92-50 beat-down on Bethune-Cookman during the first game of the day, Michigan State will play against the defending national champions on their home court this Monday.