MSU women: Let’s ‘stay in the fight’ vs. No. 1 UConn

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

There aren't many women's basketball teams in the country that can say they're on a winning streak against Connecticut. Michigan State is one of those teams — if you consider one win a streak, that is.

“We had our chances and they had theirs,” Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant. “I think we had some tough calls against us but we just have to play through that stuff.”

The Spartans and Huskies last played in December 2004, when Michigan State won, 67-51, en route to a season in which it played for a national championship.

Six Connecticut championships later, the teams will meet again at 3 p.m. Eastern Saturday in Eugene, Ore., as one of the two women's basketball games that are part of the Phil Knight Invitational, celebrating the Nike founder's 80th birthday.

It's quite an opportunity for the Spartans, even if it's likely to be a humbling one.

"When we left East Lansing, I said, 'We're gonna win or we're gonna learn. We're not gonna go out there and lose," Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant said Thursday night, following practice.

"It should be a learning experience. That's how we have to treat it. Let's go in there and throw some punches."

This is the second meeting between the schools, the first in the Merchant era. This will be the first time the Spartans have squared off against the No. 1-ranked team in the country since 2007, when it lost to Maryland.

Connecticut (4-0), of course, is the gold standard of women's college basketball. It's made the NCAA Tournament every year since 1989, the Sweet 16 every year since 1994, the Elite Eight every year since 2006 and the Final Four every year since 2008.

The Huskies have won three of the last four national championships, being upset in last year's Final Four.

The Spartans (4-0) are off to a fast start this year, especially on offense, averaging nearly 100 points a game. They're also averaging 58 rebounds a game. But, to be frank, they haven't faced anyone close to the level of the Huskies, and Merchant knows it.

And she's done her best to prepare for it, not that it's an enviable task.

"The biggest problem, and I talked to Coach (Tom) Izzo about it before they played Duke, the hardest thing as a coach is, how do you emulate certain things they do," Merchant said. "I can't emulate the size and the length, I can't emulate the speed and pace at which they play, how hard they cut, how efficient they are offensively.

"You can show it on film, you can talk about it.

"But it's impossible to emulate."

Connecticut has opened the season with four ranked opponents, dismantling each of them — most recently, fifth-ranked UCLA. The Huskies have six players averaging in double-figures in scoring, led by 6-foot-3 junior swing Katie Lou Samuelson (16.5 points) and 5-5 sophomore guard Crystal Dangerfield (16.3).

The Spartans have four in double figures, with 6-4 senior Taya Reimer leading the way at 15 points a game, coming off the bench. Branndais Agee, a 6-foot redshirt senior from Detroit, is averaging 13.8 points.

Michigan State typically starts a freshman, two sophomores and a junior. It's a younger team, so there's the danger of a game against Connecticut causing some serious damage to the psyche of a squad just outside the top 25.

Merchant hopes it goes the other way.

"I want to see my team compete, I can't wait to see them stay in the fight," said Merchant, whose Spartans are coming off a blowout win over Detroit Mercy — even though she said the team lacked energy and focus in that game. "Don't play the scoreboard, don't put your head down. We have to compete. That's what I'm looking for.

"This is a good opportunity for us, facing the best team in the country. Let's see what they look like. It'll definitely show us where we are."


Tip-off: 3 Saturday, Matthew Knight Arena, Eugene, Ore.

Records: Michigan State 4-0; Connecticut 4-0

Streaming: ESPN3