EAST LANSING – As the clock struck zeros last season as MSU took down the then No. 3-ranked Oregon Ducks in front of more than 6,000 fans early last year, they rejoiced: this might be the year they make a run in the tournament.
Fast forward to Spring 2019.
The Spartans made the NCAA tournament, something they had not done since 2017 and lost in the second round to Notre Dame after a disjointed finish to the regular season.
Now, in 2019, with one of the highest ranked recruiting classes in the nation, the Spartans are finding themselves again.
“This is a team,” said MSU head coach Suzy Merchant. “And we have a really strong roster top to bottom and that should be embraced.”
Freshman Moira Joiner picks off a Morehead State pass underneath, streaks down the floor, catches a three in the corner and lets it fly. It’s good and MSU pushes its lead to 24-10 to open the second quarter.
Freshman Julia Ayrault checks into the game and gets her first career double-double in a 93-48 win in the early afternoon Sunday. Nia Hollie added a season-high 12 points for the Spartans too.
“I didn’t know that, wow,” said Hollie when told she had scored a season-high.
Walk-on Laurel Jacqmain got minutes, teammates screaming for her to get an open shot.
Guard Claire Hendrickson, who suffered major knee injuries in her senior year of high school at Wyoming High near Grand Rapids and during her first practice at MSU scored a career-high eight.
“I was really excited for Claire,” said Hollie. “It just makes your heart warm.
“It’s exciting on a different level, If I’m going to be honest … Throughout the year you don’t score as much, you know everybody wants to score. Everybody wants to score, at the end of the day that is important but you know that’s not always gonna be the case and that’s just a matter of the fact. So when you do score, when you do feel like you’re contributing on that level it makes you play different, look at yourself different.”
The MSU bench was getting into it all game, the bonds the MSU women’s basketball has formed in their young season, sitting at 7-2, seem stronger than ever.
Accepting roles, is all part of that.
“Everybody knows their responsibility,” said Hollie. “I think that it’s no confusion, no hesitation within that and not only that, I mean we talk a lot. But we’re just realistic with each other I think. I think we stopped the sugar coating and I think we also know that we’re on a mission. We have a mission.”
Taryn McCutcheon scored 10 points, grabbed five rebounds and had three assists. The Spartans had four others scored in double figures – all of them underclassmen and nearly had a fifth with 10 too.
It was a team effort.
A simple google search defines a team as such, “To come together as a team to achieve a common goal.”
That common goal of winning the Big Ten has started with players like Ayrault and Joiner, what they’re capable in their roles on defense and offense has changed the way Merchant handles substitutions.
Something she handed off to her assistants for the first time during Sunday’s game.
“That’s the one thing about both of them,” said Merchant about Joiner and Ayrault. “That’s exciting, you know. I think some kids you play for offense and some kids you play for defense. And when you have kids that can play both sides of the ball, as silly as that sounds, I mean there are some kids on our roster that are defensively driven … I think that group of kids, that freshmen group can actually play both sides of the ball.
“Which is pretty impressive when you think about how young they are.”
Ayrault has scored in double figures twice this season and also had three blocks and three steals in the win over Morehead State.
The MSU freshmen, just as starters McCutcheon, Nia Clouden and Shay Colley have – are discovering their place in the program and helping the Spartans settle into an identity before they open Big Ten action against Nebraska on New Years Eve.
“Coach likes to say, ‘all in, all the time’ and that could mean a hundred different things,” said Hollie. “But at the end of the day it’s all in all the time. So, whatever responsibility you have for that day, make sure you do your job. Because everybody else is doing their job.”
Joe Dandron is a staff writer, columnist and football reporter for Impact89FM. You can follow him on Twitter @JosephDandronMI or contact him at [email protected]