MSU women aim to go farther in NCAAs

David Goricki
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Aerial Powers threw her fist in the air in celebration after her pass inside resulted in a basket by talented freshman power forward Kennedy Johnson during a recent Michigan State practice at Breslin Center.

Powers, a 6-foot guard, is at her best while playing with emotion and passion. She was a Big Ten first-team performer as a red-shirt freshman last season, helping the Spartans earn a share of the conference regular-season title, just three years after earning the first outright conference title in school history.

So what did Powers do to celebrate the championship? Well, she worked on her game all summer to develop a better jump shot to go with her attacking style.

Powers (Detroit Country Day) wants to become an All-American before her career is over at MSU, while leading the Spartans deeper in the NCAA tournament. They have six straight NCAA Tournament appearances, but haven't advanced to the Sweet 16 since 2009.

Powers didn't know what to expect last season after missing the 2012-13 season with a torn Achilles tendon in her left ankle, suffered less than a month before the opener. Well, she shouldn't have worried, leading the 23-10 Spartans in scoring (13.4), rebounding (8.2) and steals (1.8) while also helping them lead the Big Ten in scoring defense (63.8).

"Last year at this time, I was very nervous since I was coming off my Achilles injury and didn't know if I'd be ready," said Powers, a 6-foot guard who shot 47.7 percent from the field and 31.7 percent (19-of-60) on three-pointers. "Then, I had a good season last year and this offseason I just really worked on what I was bad at last season which is shooting. I feel my shooting could be better from everywhere, from perimeter, three-point, off the dribble, just being more consistent.

"You can get like over 100 shots in 20 minutes with the gun (shooting machine) and I was constantly on that instead of just shooting, putting up shots. I made sure I looked at my percentage on how many I was making. I got a couple of weeks in of just constantly rhythm shots, rhythm shots. I worked on my shooting all summer."

Powers had 26 points and 18 rebounds in an NCAA Tournament win over Hampton before the Spartans lost to North Carolina, 62-53, in the second round.

Powers wants to reach the second week of the NCAA Touranment this time around. Athlon Sports has the Spartans ranked No. 5 in its preseason magazine. The Associated Press has them ranked No. 14. MSU's return to the top will be challenged by Big Ten newcomers Maryland and Rutgers.

The Spartans return three starters with sophomore point guard Tori Jankoska (12.4 points, 64 3-pointers) and 6-foot-4 senior Becca Mills (10 points, 5.5 rebounds) joining Powers with physical 6-3 senior Jasmine Hines also in the mix.

Johnson, younger sister of Penn State defensive tackle Austin Johnson, is among a talented freshmen class that includes Miss Basketball award winner Lexi Gussert, 6-foot forward Jasmine Lumpkin and 5-1 guard Kiara Carter.

"We want to win the Big Ten again and get further in the NCAA tourney," Powers said. "I want to be more consistent and raise my points and rebounds. I feel we're moving the ball around way better than last year. We're looking good and we're ready to get started.

"I like to be hyper around everyone and when I'm down I don't play my best. I play my best when I'm hyped and I'm giving to my team and I'm loud, my energy is high. I feel I have a voice out there now, especially after last year. Tori's like that too and when we're both hyped, the team's energy goes up too. I feel we earned our respect after how we played last year. If someone does something wrong, we speak up because we feel can because we have a year under our belt."

Suzy Merchant, MSU's eighth-year head coach, wants Powers playing with emotion.

"Aerial is a kid that's very passionate and with a lot of high energy and when she's up and hyped it's usually a great sign for everyone else around her," Merchant said. "Last year she went through times where she'd go up and down as freshmen do. She's responded very well this year and is very enthusiastic and engaged.

"Tori is just much more confident. She's had a great off season so I think I always believe confidence comes from preparation and when you're prepared you're going to be more confident."

So, where is MSU's strength this season?

"I think a little bit of everything," Merchant said. "I think our senior captains inside (Mills, Hines) have been very successful for us. I think Jaz being healthy now (after concussions), I think she still has to get in shape, but she's back now. She's great, just not in shape yet.

"(Johnson) does some really good things. She's big and powerful and she fits a lot of things that we try to do. I think Becca (Mills) and Jaz (Hines) will get most of the minutes, but Kennedy will play."

MSU played Toledo in a closed scrimmage earlier this month and Merchant started Jankoska and Powers at guard with Hines and Mills up front, with Lumpkin at small forward.

"She looks really good, really athletic, very versatile," Merchant said of Lumpkin. "Lexi (Gussert) is doing a nice job. We were playing her at multiple positions in our early practices and she struggled a little bit and that was my fault. I was smart enough to figure out last year with Aerial Powers and Tori, just to play them at one spot and that's probably why they had a lot of success. We're just playing her (Gussert) at the 2 spot and she's been much, much better."

Merchant pointed out the Spartans were dealt a big blow with an ACL injury this past June to sophomore guard Branndais Agee.

"It's frustrating because she really was if not our best player in the postseason, pretty darn close and she had an incredible off season," Merchant said of Agee. "It was the most I've seen a kid improve in a long time in my career so it was really disappointing for her, but the six month mark comes up in January."

The Spartans open up the season Sunday against Eastern Michigan.

A closer look at Michigan State

Coach: Suzy Merchant (163-72 at Michigan State, 82-36 Big Ten)

Last season: 23-10, 13-3 Big Ten

Notable losses: Klarissa Bell, Annalise Pickrel

Notable newcomers: Miss Basketball winner Lexi Gussert, Kennedy Johnson, Jasmine Lumpkin, Kiara Carter

Best nonconference games: Nov. 19 vs. Notre Dame; Dec. 20 against Baylor in Florida Sunshine Classic

Outlook: The Spartans should again contend for the Big Ten title, led by a talented backcourt of sophomores Aerial Powers (13.4 points, 8.2 rebounds) and Tori Jankoska (12.4 points, 64 3-pointers). Look for a big season from physical 6-3 senior center Jasmine Hines which should put them over the top for their first Sweet 16 appearance since 2009.