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Suzy Merchant is excited for the Central Michigan women’s basketball team, which has become the darling of the NCAA Women’s Tournament, having made the Sweet 16.

“That’s my alma mater,” Merchant said. “Fire up, Chips! Gotta love it.”

What Merchant doesn’t have to love is how this season played out at Michigan State, which still is trying to make the most of things in the second-tier WNIT.

The Spartans are through the first two rounds — thanks to a last-second game-winner from redshirt sophomore guard Shay Colley in Monday’s 68-66 victory over Toledo at Breslin Center in East Lansing.

Michigan State (19-13) now heads on the road, for an 8 p.m. tip-off Thursday at South Dakota (28-6), trying to keep alive a season that started with so much potential, and crashed and burned halfway through because of a bevy of injuries.

Michigan State had made the NCAA Tournament eight of the previous nine years. Its last trip to the WNIT was 2008, when it finished runner-up.

“I mean, it’s mixed emotions, you know,” Merchant said Wednesday, after practice and before flying to South Dakota.

“We think we’re an an NCAA Tournament team, until we get blown up with injuries. Now, we’re just trying to learn and have the opportunity to be in survive-and-advance mode. That’s important in the process, too. We’re pretty young in a lot of positions, so that’s part of a good experience.

“But, yeah, mixed emotions.”

For a stretch during the Big Ten portion of the schedule, the Spartans didn’t have any available guards — all lost to injuries, some more serious than others. There were knee injuries, broken arms, concussions, you name it.

That led to a six-game losing streak which all but destroyed the NCAA aspirations, which officially were DOA after a four-overtime loss to Indiana in the Big Ten tournament.

While the Spartans still aren’t completely healthy — Colley, freshman forward Sidney Cooks and senior guard/forward Lexi Gussert still are hurt, but playing through it — they’re in much better shape than they were, and are left to wonder what could’ve been had the dominoes fallen in order throughout the season.

“Yeah, it’s hard, really hard,” Merchant said. “But there are things that are outside your control.

“At the same time, you’ve gotta be in the moment you’re in, and this is the moment we’re in.”

And that moment has led the Spartans to South Dakota, to face a team that’s as hot as almost anyone in the country, having won 22 of its last 23 games.

South Dakota is coached by Dawn Plitzuweit, a graduate of Michigan Tech who led Grand Valley State to the 2006 Division II national championship.

South Dakota was perfect in the Summit League in the regular season, at 14-0, before being stunned by South Dakota State in the Summit League tournament championship — wiping out a chance at an NCAA Tournament berth.

So, there actually are two teams playing Thursday that feel a tinge of disappointment.

For the Spartans, it’s been a trying year not just on the court, but on campus, too.

“It was a tough year at Michigan State,” Merchant said, clearly not talking about wins and losses. “There were some distractions that aren’t normal, and (the players) are trying to manage some of those things, too. These are our kids, they have emotions and thoughts, and it wasn’t easy. But I definitely think they are a resilient group, and they fought through a lot of things.”

WNIT

Michigan State vs. South Dakota

Tip-off: 8 p.m. Thursday, Sanford Coyote Sports Center, Vermillion, S.D.

Records: Michigan State 19-13; South Dakota 28-6

Up next: Winner advances to the quarterfinals to play either New Mexico or TCU

Outlook: In five trips to the WNIT, Michigan State has advanced past the second round all five times — for a 10-0 record through two rounds. On the road, the Spartans are 3-3 in the WNIT. ... Ciara Duffy leads South Dakota at 11.9 points per game, while Allison Arens averages 11.4

tpaul@detroitnews.com

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