Michigan State women forced to open on the road

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Michigan State built a strong resume to earn an at-large bid into the NCAA Women’s Basketball tournament after a rare absence from the Big Dance a year ago.

The No. 16 Spartans earned their seventh NCAA tourney appearance in the last eight years, going 24-8 and winning six straight to advance to the Big Ten tournament championship game before falling to No. 5 Maryland.

MSU found out Monday night during the NCAA Pairings Show it will be playing Belmont in the Bridgeport Regional at noon Friday in Starkville, Mississippi.

The Spartans, the fourth seed, were in line to host a sub regional, but had to pass because the girls high school finals are being held this weekend in Breslin Center. Michigan State could meet Mississippi State, who is hosting instead, on Sunday with a victory.

“It’s disappointing that our women’s basketball team will be unable to host the first and second rounds of the 2016 NCAA Tournament, Spartans athletic director Mark Hoillis said in a statement. “When MSU signed the agreement with the Michigan High School Athletic Association to host the Boys and Girls Basketball Tournaments in February 2011, the NCAA Tournament format didn’t provide opportunities for the Top 16 seeds to host the opening rounds.

“Later, the NCAA Tournament changed its format, providing the Top 16 seeds with the opportunity to host the first and second rounds. Now unfortunately, the Breslin Center isn’t available for those dates due to our previous commitment to the MHSAA.”

MSU coach Suzy Merchant, who has guided the Spartans to seven NCAA tournament appearances in her nine years as head coach, feels they can win in a variety of ways, making them a dangerous team.

“For me when I look at the NCAA Tournament, I feel like we have opportunities to do some things,” Merchant said. “We can morph ourselves into whatever we need to have. We can defend people, if it’s in play that way. We have been able to put a lot of points on the board at times, and we needed to be playing against Minnesota and Ohio State. So our team has been able to be a little Chameleon-like in terms of its ability to morph into what had to happen.”

In the final weeks of the regular season, the Spartans defeated Minnesota 114-106 and Ohio State 107-105 in double-overtime.

The Spartans won their Big Ten quarterfinal game with strong defense in a 65-64 win over Purdue, then put on an offensive show in pounding then-No. 9 Ohio State, 82-63. In the title game 60-44 loss to Maryland, they played outstanding defensively in the first half to hold the lead before a sluggish second half while playing their third game in three days.

There’s no doubt the Spartans have plenty of firepower, led by All-Big Ten first-team player Aerial Powers (21.9 points, 9.2 rebounds), junior point guard Tori Jankoska (15.3 points, 5.5 rebounds) and physical 6-foot-3 senior center Jasmine Hines (10.3 points, 6.3 rebounds).

The key will be X-factor Branndais Agee (11.6 points, 5.1 rebounds), the team’s premier athlete who can cause havoc defensively. However, she gets in early foul trouble at times to get in the way of the team’s momentum, and at other times struggles shooting the ball.