EAST LANSING – The journey wasn’t completely smooth
But the end season destination remains the same for the Michigan State women’s basketball team.
A season that featured a near-month long absence of their coach and where plenty of young players made contributions will continue this week in the NCAA tournament for the Spartans.
MSU (22-11) was tabbed as a No. 9 seed in the Stockton regional and will open its latest tournament run against No. 8 seed Arizona State (19-12) in Columbia, South Carolina, on Friday (7:30 p.m., ESPN2).
“I think we’re all pretty excited,” MSU senior Tori Jankoska said. “I think a lot of (our youth) didn’t know exactly what it meant to be able to get into the NCAA tournament. I think the way we finished the season – we’re playing our best basketball right now, which is really good for us. Just to be able to give (our youth) that experience going forward is pretty big for our program.”
The Spartans are in the NCAA tournament for the second straight season and for the eighth time in the last nine years under 10th year coach Suzy Merchant. They were one of four Big Ten teams in the field, joining Maryland, Ohio State and Purdue.
“That’s where you want to be,” Merchant said. “You certainly want to be a team that is in the NCAA tournament. You can’t win a national championship if you’re not in it. I think that’s what we all aspire to do certainly here at Michigan State in every sport. I’m excited about the draw, I’m excited about getting on a plane and going down there and playing in South Carolina.”
Jankoska led the charge in helping a younger MSU team land a spot in the big dance. The Spartans won five of their final eight games after Merchant returned from medical leave and made a run to the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament.
Now the Spartans are trying to carry that late-season momentum into the NCAA tournament as they prepare to face Arizona State, which finished fifth in the Pac-12.
South Carolina, which is hosting the opening two rounds, is the top seed in the Stockton regional. And the Spartans could advance to face the Gamecocks, who are coached by former WNBA star Dawn Staley, if they get past Arizona State on Friday.
”The eight-nine game is always an interesting one and the last time we were in that we beat a No. 1 seed here in Duke and went on to the Sweet 16,” Merchant said of the Spartans’ 2009 tournament run that came as a No. 9 seed. “Eight-nine (games) have been good to us. We did that at home and now we’re doing that on the road, which is a little bit different. I’m excited about it.”
Contact Brian Calloway at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @brian_calloway.