INDIANAPOLIS -- Sheer will….The mentality of a winner.
You can draw all the Xs and Os you want, but sometimes it just comes down to belief.
And to thinking like a winner.
On a day that featured one major upset and one minor one, it looked like No. 2-seed Michigan State was going to be another upset victim at the hands of seventh-seeded Michigan in Game Three of the second round of the Big Ten Women's Basketball Tournament. Instead, the Spartans put frustration aside and made just enough plays to come out a 61-58 winner.
Afterward, MSU head coach Suzy Merchant mixed praise for the leadership of senior forward Annalise Pickrell with a discussion of the Xs and Os.
“I do think Annalise's [Pickrel] will to win was there from start to the finish. And sometimes when things aren't going our way we can kind of become an individualized team. Everybody wants to put the team on their back, but because of that, it's like one-pass, shot. We're one-and-done and that kind of thing. She didn't allow that to happen."
Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico preferred blaming the rebounding of Michigan State down the stretch to admitting to fatigue on the part of her own charges, who were playing their second hard-fought tournament game in as many days. Her analysis was correct, at least in part: The Spartans held a 17-6 advantage in offensive rebounds (39-26 overall), which bought them 13 second-chance points.
Players are often reticent to discuss will to win. In their opinion, every athlete has it. They are also reluctant to use the word "fatigue," though to the casual observer, fatigue played a big factor down the stretch.
But Spartan guard Tori Jankoska said she noticed a difference in the Wolverines' energy level over the course of the game.
“In the beginning they were really giving it out and pushing it on us and we struggled to get back in transition,” she said. "But towards the end of the first half and the end of the second half, well, half of it was because we were getting stops and they weren't making every shot they were taking so we were able to get the ball out and go in transition, which usually helps us."
Michigan had defeated 10th-seeded Indiana, 82-57, in the opening round of the tournament Thursday night, but the game had exacted a heavy toll in minutes on the six Wolverine key players, each of whom had logged over 30 minutes of playing time in that game. On Friday night each of those players logged at least 29 more minutes with two of them on the floor for as many as 39 minutes. Fatigue would simply be human.
But it sure didn’t look like those players were tired the first half. With a little revenge on their minds from a close loss at home to the Spartans on January 12 (72-79), the Wolverines blew out to a 27-13 first-half lead on Thursday, using a defense that appeared to leave the Spartans both confused and frustrated.
But that is where the mental part of the game came into play. Near the end of the first half, the Spartans found an opening that appeared to work every time. It was simply a little lead pass over the Wolverine defenders to Spartan big Becca Mills, who scored nine points in the last four minutes and change to pull her team back to within three at halftime, 31-28.
“Cyesha Goree was on the bench with foul trouble at the end of the first half,” Arico said. “So we had to go to the zone.”
Fouls were indeed a problem for Michigan, and not only for Goree. By the end of the game, Nicole Elmblad had fouled out, and Val Driscoll was playing with four.
That set up the second half, where five times the Spartans would get close to either tying or taking the lead, only to be rebuffed by a clutch play or two by Michigan. Then, with a mere 1:15 remaining, MSU’s Tori Jankoska snuck underneath for a layup that gave her team the lead for good. Seconds later, Branndais Agee swiped a Wolverine pass and with 29 seconds to go scored a huge putback that gave her team the final margin.
Annalise Pickrel led the Spartans with 18 points while Jankoska added 14. For Michigan, Madison Ristovski scored 18 and Siera Thompson added 16.
With Friday's quarterfinal win, MSU's record improves to 22-8 overall, 13-3 in conference actin. Up next is a date with No. 3 Nebraska (23-6, 12-4) in the second of Saturday's semifinals. The Spartans split their regular-season series with the Huskers, with MSU holding court at home in early Jan. (70-57) but falling in Lincoln by a similar margin (56-76). Saturday's rematch tips at 6 p.m. EST and will be aired on BTN.
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