MSU women brace for latest big loss, but are prepared

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

When Aerial Powers announced last April she was skipping her senior season at Michigan State to enter the WNBA draft, the Spartans knew they had talent coming back.

But it wasn’t going to be easy to replace the nearly 22 points per game Powers averaged her sophomore and junior seasons.

Michigan State, with a late surge that included two huge victories over then-ranked rival Michigan, still went 21-11 and made its eighth NCAA Tournament appearance in nine years.

The season ended Friday with a 73-61 loss to Arizona State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, and now the Spartans prepare to say farewell to another star.

At least, this one they were prepared for.

“Losing Tori (Jankoska), certainly you’re going to feel that,” coach Suzy Merchant said Saturday, after the team had returned to mid-Michigan, allowing her to check out some state finals action at Breslin Center.

“Just like we felt losing Aerial. It’ll take a bit of time.”

Jankoska, a four-year starter at guard, averaged 22.6 points, 8.0 rebounds and 4.8 assists this season in earning unanimous first-team All-Big Ten honors.

For her career, she scored a program-record 2,212 points, averaging 16.9 over her 131 games (114 starts).

How do you replace that?

“You know, she’s a special talent,” Merchant said. “There’s no question.

“She just found a way to will the team to win, in her competitiveness and how hard she played.”

Michigan State went through all kinds of adversity this season, starting with Merchant, who missed 24 days midseason to address a heart ailment that caused a fainting spell on the sidelines during a game in January.

There also were a number of injury issues, most notably freshman guard Mardrekia Cook, a top-50 prospect coming out of high school who early in her first collegiate season was diagnosed with exertional compartment syndrome.

Merchant hadn’t heard of the injury in her 20-plus years coaching. Essentially, whenever Cook would run or jump, a muscle in the lower leg would expand, and her leg would go numb. It prohibited Cook from practicing, and Merchant couldn’t play her for more than short spurts.

Cook is scheduled for corrective surgery in the coming weeks.

“The only way to fix it it, really, is to go in there and relieve the pressure by taking some of the muscle out,” Merchant said. “On the flight back (from Columbia, S.C.), I was talking to the trainer, ‘Do you have that set up for tomorrow?’

“‘Can she have the surgery tomorrow? I’ll drive her!”

Merchant was joking, but acknowledged the injury is serious.

Michigan State also was dealt a number of other injury issues, to key players like Branndais Agee, Jenna Allen and Taya Reimer, among several others. In some ways, though, a couple injuries could be blessings in disguise.

Two seniors actually will get another year of eligibility. Reimer, a forward, was approved in December by the NCAA for another season, and Agee, a guard, just has to fill out some paperwork to get her extra season. Jankoska, in fact, is the only departing player. Agee was second on the team in points (10.0), and Reimer third (9.5).

Sophomore guard Shay Colley, a transfer from South Carolina and a top recruit in 2015, will be eligible to play next season, and Michigan State also has landed one of the top recruits in the country, a McDonald’s All-American, forward Sidney Cooks from Kenosha, Wis. The continued development of sophomore-to-be Taryn McCutcheon — who set the program’s freshman assist record (169) — is big, too.

“I’m excited,” said Merchant, who just completed her 10th season as Michigan State’s head coach. “We still hae some pieces that have gotta come together, be a bigger, more-athletic, more-defensive team.

“That’s something I was probably disappointed in a little bit, was the defensive side of the ball. We’ve always been known best as a defensive and rebounding team. We weren’t as good. We can so the ball now. But defensively, we weren’t as good. We’ve gotta take a good, hard look at that.” @tonypaul1984