INDIANAPOLIS — A 2-seed versus a 3-seed. Two teams that have played each other twice in the regular season, with neither game resulting in more than a five-point win.
What was expected to be a close game never really was. Michigan State women’s basketball cruised to a 83-62 win over Ohio State in the semifinal round of the Big Ten Tournament.
“Well, obviously it was nice to come out of the gates as strong as we did,” head coach Suzy Merchant said. “These two right here [Powers and Jankoska] set the tone early, put pressure on them, and handling the pressure in the back of the press.”
Less than 24 hours after having one of their worst halves of the season, MSU looked the best they have been in 2016.
The difference one player can make for a team was on display today, thanks to a junior guard in Tori Jankoska.
Jankoska – one day removed from a less-than-spectacular, seven-point game – looked determined even in warmups.
(2/2) She's following through on her shot in warm-ups right now and the result is noticeable. She has a different look in her eye today.
— Zachary Swiecicki (@zachswies) March 5, 2016
The experienced guard shook off Friday’s dreadful shooting performance in exuberant fashion. Her first half included 10 points, seven rebounds, and four assists, which all came without committing a turnover.
“Coming into the game, I had a different mindset than yesterday and games in the previous,” Jankoska said. “It felt good.”
According to legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant, “Offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships.”
Well, if that is the case, MSU sold a lot of tickets on Saturday, and they should be ready to win a B1G Championship on Sunday.
Jankoska seemed to be the catalyst for MSU, offensively and defensively. And the team’s defense is what put the game away before the second half could start.
“Tori didn’t let yesterday’s game affect her,” Powers said. “And I think that shows a lot of leadership, that she came out hungry and aggressive.”
The Spartan defense held Kelsey Mitchell and OSU’s potent offense scoreless for over five minutes towards the end of the first quarter, not allowing a bucket until there was less than a minute left on the clock.
“I thought, defensively, we did a better job extending on Kelsey (Mitchell) than we did the first time,” Merchant said. “Our [defensive] stops obviously went into transition offense, and we were able to get off to a good start.”
Starting the second quarter up 18-12, MSU began to pile onto their lead.
Almost halfway through the quarter, 6-foot sophomore Lexi Gussert even got in on the action, knocking down a 3-pointer to extend the Spartans’ lead to 17.
OSU tried everything they could to slow down the freight train that was Michigan State’s offense. They double-teamed Jasmine Hines when she got the ball in the paint, but Hines either got fouled on her shot or was able to kick the ball out to an open shooter.
At the half, MSU was up 44-20. This left half the crowd, dressed in scarlet and grey, stunned and silent. The other half, in green and white, was as rowdy as they have been in MSU’s two games.
In 20 minutes, Kelsey Mitchell – who had scored 43 points on Friday vs Rutgers and 48 points in the previous game against MSU – had eight points (3-for-9 FG, 2-for-7 3PT), one rebound, two assists, and two turnovers.
OSU’s second leading scorer, Ameryst Alston, tried to play with a sprained wrist, but could only play 10 minutes and was obviously affected by the injury.
The halftime box score told the entire story.
To start the second half, MSU was very relaxed. Players were smiling and having fun, and it translated into their game.
With 5:10 left in the third quarter, graduate student Akyah Taylor went up for a layup and got fouled by Kelsey Mitchell. Taylor made the layup despite contact and sunk the free throw. The foul was Mitchell’s fourth, so she was forced to spend some time on the bench.
Freshman Jenna Allen got a layup to go with less than a minute left in the quarter, and that pushed MSU to 72 points, double OSU’s 36.
The fourth quarter was nothing more than a formality. It was garbage time. OSU made as much of a run as they could, but it made little difference.
MSU barely had to break a sweat after the first quarter and a half, allowing head coach Suzy Merchant to distribute the minutes – 11 Spartans saw playing time.
“Well, I would just say it does give us confidence,” Powers said. “Every game you have where you do well, you just kind of want to push it and you want to keep doing well every single game.”
Aerial Powers finished with a double-double: 31 points, 12 rebounds. Tori Jankoska ended with 23 points, eight rebounds, and six assists.
Ohio State’s Kelsey Mitchell scored 20 points, but shot 4-for-18 from the field and 2-for-12 from long distance.
“That kid [Mitchell] can get her shot,” Merchant said. “The biggest thing is that we extended so she didn’t get six, eight, 10 shots out here with us just kind of hanging around.”
The Spartans will be riding a six-game winning streak into the B1G title game and are arguably playing the best they have all year.
Third-seed MSU (24-7 OVR, 13-4 B1G) will play 1-seed Maryland (29-3, 16-2) on Sunday at 7 p.m. for the Big Ten Championship. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.
“They’re [Maryland] a great team,” Powers said. “I think this is a big challenge for us and it will show us kind of where we place when it comes to NCAA Tournament [seeding]. Honestly, I think I’m going to be up all night thinking about it.”