EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) Michigan State is in the women’s NCAA tournament for a school-record sixth straight year.
Also for the first time, the Spartans have won two Big Ten titles in a four-year stretch.
While a redshirst freshman leads the team in scoring and a true freshman is tied for second, coach Suzy Merchant said the program would not have broken new ground this season without seniors Klarissa Bell and Annalise Pickrel subtly leading the way.
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”What we’ve done doesn’t surprise me because of their character, work ethic and dedication to improving,” Merchant said in her office earlier this week. ”They’re the kids who will do whatever is needed and necessary. Annalise can help us anywhere in the frontcourt and after Klarissa played on the wing for three years, now she has to be a point guard for us.”
Bell shifted from shooting to point guard when Kiana Johnson was suspended two months ago for violating unspecified team roles.
Instead of bristling at playing a new position in her final year, Bell embraced it and helped Michigan State build momentum toward the end of the season.
”I didn’t know who else could do it,” she said simply. ”Even though I’m more effective getting the ball on the wing and creating for my teammates, it was something we needed as a team and I like new challenges.
”Since I’ve become a point guard, I haven’t been looking to score as much. But in the NCAA tournament, I’ve got to look to score more to keep defenses honest.”
The fifth-seeded Spartans will face 12th-seeded Hampton on Sunday.
If they win, they’ll likely play fourth-seeded North Carolina on its home court.
”We can’t overlook Hampton because they’re very good, but if we do get a chance to play North Carolina, it’ll be a good, competitive game to say the least,” Pickrel said. ”I’ve always wanted to play North Carolina, so hopefully we’ll earn that opportunity.
”They have a good freshman class and so do we.”
Aerial Powers, who tore a tendon in her left ankle in October of 2012, is Michigan State’s first freshman to earn a spot on the All-Big Ten team. She set a school record for a freshman by averaging 13.4 points.
Tori Jankoska is averaging 12.4 points in her first year on campus, tying Pickrel for second on the team in scoring.
Bell, meanwhile, is sixth in scoring with a modest 7.6 points-per-game average a game. She also averages 3.5 assists and five rebounds.
Most importantly, she’s back in the NCAA tournament.
”When I got here, some of the upperclassmen talked about being in the WNIT and they said that’s something you don’t want to play in,” Bell said. ”So, I’m excited to get to another NCAA tournament. We started poorly this season, bounced back and now we want to really finish strong.”
The Spartans insist they’ll be confident even if they have to play the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill, N.C., after winning a school-record seven Big Ten games on the road.
”We won’t make excuses, we’ll just have to be tougher,” Merchant said. ”We’ve proven we can go into hostile territory and win, and we know the only way to do that against good teams is to be at our best for 40 minutes.”
Follow Larry Lage on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/larrylage