'Proud of our fight': MSU women rally late, but fall short in NCAA Tournament opener

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Every 12 years, it seems, Michigan State and Iowa State meet in the women's NCAA Tournament.

That's too soon for a reunion, if you ask the Spartans.

Aubrey Joens, Big 12 freshman of the year and an All-American, had 33 points including four 3-pointers and Iowa State made nine 3s as a team in beating Michigan State, 79-75, in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament on Monday night at the Alamodome in San Antonio.

Iowa State guard Ashley Joens (24) drives past Michigan State guard Janai Crooms (23) during the first half.

Michigan State (15-9) was thrown just about every challenge possible this season, from COVID-19 pauses to untimely late-season injuries, and everything in between. Down 10 late in the third quarter, the Spartans clawed within one late, but in the end, it proved one challenge they just couldn't quite meet.

"This team is special and they're going to do great things in the future," Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant said. "We grew up a lot this entire year.

"This group battled and fought hard, and everybody gave us something, and at the end of the day, we just came up a little short.

"I'm just really proud of our fight."

Junior guard Nia Clouden scored 16 to lead Michigan State, and sophomore Alyza Winston finished with 11, including a big layup late to get the Spartans within 76-75 and set up the thrilling finish.

More:Michigan State women seek answer for Iowa State's do-everything star Ashley Joens

Iowa State (17-10) answered with two made free throws, giving Michigan State one last shot to at least send the game into overtime.

But Clouden, the heart of the offense, was double-teamed on the late possession, so she kicked it to a wide-open Winston. Her 3-point attempt to tie it with 10 seconds left was deep. Winston also missed two good layup looks in the fourth quarter, and still hadn't moved from her locker-room chair 20 minutes after the ballgame, Merchant said.

"After that shot went up and she missed, I told her it was a good shot. We'll take that shot any day," Clouden said. "She's only a sophomore and this is her first tournament. I feel like she'll definitely learn from this."

BOX SCORE: Iowa State 79, Michigan State 75

Madison Wise had 13 points and 11 rebounds for Iowa State, the No. 10 seed which advances to play No. 2 seed Texas A&M on Wednesday. Kristin Scott scored 12 and Lexi Donarski had 10, including a fastbreak layup to make it 68-65. That was sandwiched by Winston's missed layups.

But Joens was the focus of the offense. She only played 29 minutes because of foul trouble. When she was out, Michigan State usually flourished. When she was in, she often took over, sparking a 10-0 first-quarter run before she had to sit with two fouls. At one point in the second half, she scored eight straight for Iowa State.

"What makes it tough is she takes her time with the ball, she's really patient," said Clouden, whose Spartans decided to go one-on-one with her, rather than double-team and risk leaving other scorers open.

"She's really relentless."

Joens also had nine rebounds for Iowa State, which made six of eight free throws in the final 1 minute, 41 seconds.

Iowa State guard Kylie Feuerbach, front right, looks to pass under pressure from Michigan State guards Nia Clouden (24) and Alyza Winston (3) during the first half.

Sophomore Taiyier Parks had 11 rebounds for Michigan State, which battled key injuries down the stretch this season. They had two key players back Monday, junior forward Tory Ozment (leg) and sophomore guard Julia Ayrault (concussion), but they were limited to 16 minutes between them.

Still, late, they proved impactful. On one possession, Ozment grabbed a key offensive rebound (she had nine boards on the night), before finding Ayrault for a 3 to make it 73-71. 

Earlier, Ozment had a key steal, as well as a putback layup to tie it at 65. Michigan State never did lead.

This is just the third opening-round loss in the NCAA Tournament for Merchant at Michigan State, in 10 appearances. Only three of Merchant's NCAA Tournament exit closes were close, two to Iowa State.

In 2009, Merchant's second season, it was a third-round loss to Iowa State that was most crushing. Michigan State lost a heartbreaker, 69-68, the Cyclones scoring the last eight to deny the Spartans a trip to the Elite Eight. Michigan State hasn't been beyond the third round since making the championship game in 2005.

That gives these Spartans — so young this season; only three players had NCAA Tournament experience — something to shoot for next season. (Not that anyone who's dealt with this nightmare of a COVID-19 season is eager to immediately get back to work, mind you.) Five of Michigan State's nine losses were by six points or fewer, Monday's (premature, to them) season finale.

"Those are lessons learned," Merchant said. "Those are all things that can drive them in the offseason."

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984