South Bend, Ind. — If there was actually an opportunity to celebrate just a little longer, Suzy Merchant would've been the first to do so.
But following a back-and-forth, thrilling 88-87 victory over Central Michigan in the NCAA Tournament on Saturday, Michigan State had to turn its focus to its next opponent — No. 1 seed Notre Dame, otherwise known as the defending national champion.
There was no time to think about what happened against the Chippewas.
As a matter of fact, there barely was a moment for anything other than preparing to play the Fighting Irish on Monday night at Joyce Center.
“I think we’d like to enjoy this one a little longer," Merchant said Saturday afternoon, smiling, "at least until we get to the hotel and start diving in."
From a ranking standpoint, Notre Dame is the toughest team Michigan State has played since a matchup Dec. 6, 2017. And yes, that one was against the Fighting Irish near the beginning of their championship campaign.
The Spartans lost on the road, 90-59.
“Yeah, they got us good here,” Merchant said. “We’re looking forward to a chance to go at them. I think anything can happen.
"That’s why you play these games.”
The teams tip off at 7 Monday. The game is on ESPN.
Notre Dame (31-3) is paced by three of the top players in all of college basketball — senior guard Arike Ogunbowale, senior forward Jessica Shepard and junior guard Jackie Young. The trio average 21, 16.5 and 14.8 points per game, respectively. Shepard also averages 9.9 rebounds while Young averages 7.3 boards and 5.3 assists.
Prior to Michigan State battling Central Michigan, the Fighting Irish picked up a 92-50 win over No. 16 Bethune-Cookman.
The victory was sparked by a 25-0 run midway through the game and a team-high 23 points from Ogunbowale in 27 minutes.
“A lot of film, obviously,” Merchant said of her plans for Notre Dame. “They’ve got dynamic scorers, guard play, their size is tremendous. They can score inside.
"They are the defending national champions for a reason.”
Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw is 820-230 in her 32-year career leading the Fighting Irish. She has two NCAA championships, eight Final Four appearances, four ACC tournament championships, five ACC regular-season trophies and is a three-time Naismith coach of the year.
McGraw has done it all. Blowing through opponents in the NCAA Tournament until reaching the Final Four is usual.
In order to Michigan State (21-11) to avoid being the latest victim, the Spartans need top-notch contributions from junior guard Shay Colley (who had the winning layup in the win over Central Michigan), as well as junior guard Taryn McCutcheon, freshman guard Nia Clouden and 6-foot-4 senior center Jenna Allen.
Against Central Michigan in the first-round victory, the four players combined for 51 points, as sophomore forward Sidney Cooks threw in a team-high 31 points in 25 minutes off the bench.
Colley (14.5), Allen (12.6) and Clouden (12) all average double figures in scoring. Allen leads the Spartans with 6.6 rebounds per game.
Michigan State beat Central Michigan, 88-87, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday. The Detroit News
“For us, if everyone buys into their roles, we play together and with that intensity, even if things don’t go our way, we have to keep battling and fighting,” Merchant said.
McCutcheon, who was 4-of-8 from the 3-point line against Central Michigan, said Michigan State is playing its best basketball of the 2018-19 season.
The Spartans had lost six of 10 games entering the NCAA Tournament.
“We had ups and downs where we struggled to share the ball and score on offense,” McCutcheon said. “Right now, everybody’s feeling good on offense. We are playing confident, and our defense is intense.
“We know what time of year it is, and that’s how we are playing right now."
NO. 1 NOTRE DAME VS. NO. 9 MICHIGAN STATE
Tip-off: 7 Monday, South Bend, Ind.
Records: Notre Dame 31-3; Michigan State 21-11
Evan Petzold is a freelance writer.