Among the many overused sports clichés people toss around, "there is no I in team" or "it was a team victory" have to be at or near the top of the list.
Many times, that's just the politically correct statement for coaches or players to say even though more often than not, it's not the case - often in college basketball you can point to a few factors individually that caused the victorious outcome.
And if you looked at Porche Poole's second half performance or Co-Big 10 Player of the Week Lykendra Johnson's all-around game in the box score of #25 Michigan State's, 71-57 upset of #17 Texas, it might have led you to the "standard" conclusion: that it was their individual exploits that brought about the upset for Michigan State.
But that was not the case when you delve deeper into the reason that Michigan State had success against a much bigger foe in Texas.
Texas' size advantage was noticeable from the outset as they almost looked like a playground bully with the 6'4" Ashley Gayle and 6'2" Kathleen Nash on the interior. Yet with Michigan State not starting anyone over 6'1", it wasn't necessarily comparable size that would force Texas into submission but a mentality developed as a reflection of the personality, fight, grit and mindset of their head coach Suzy Merchant.
"We are not going to worry about where someone is ranked," said Merchant. "We are just going to worry about playing Michigan State basketball and getting better every single possession."
Nevertheless, at the beginning of the game, Gayle used her superior size to block shots, alter shots and to score at will in the paint in the first half. Containing the size of Texas figured to be a long, uphill battle for this undersized Michigan State team.
"We made Ashley Gayle look even like a First-Team Kodak All-American by throwing the ball right at her so she could swat it into next week," said Merchant.
But like the old proverb by Mark Twain said, "It's not the size of the dog in the fight; it's the size of the fight in the dog."
When Michigan State returned out of halftime only being up 31-27, there was a slight adjustment that Merchant made that changed the complexion of the game. But it wasn't the adjustment that most would have expected which might be to add more size, instead she did the exact opposite, staying small by starting the 5'8" Poole over starting point guard Jasmine Thomas.
This subtle adjustment immediately paid dividends, as it seemed to give a boost to Michigan State's offense as well as a change in mindset. After struggling in the first half, Michigan State star Kalisha Keane scored earlyand then Poole hit a three pointer to extend Michigan State's lead up to nine with 17:41 left in the second half.
"I thought Jasmine Thomas was mentally poor," said Merchant. "I just don't think she was tough enough. I think she had a little bit of an edge and an attitude. She was kind of mopey and we need positive energy. That's not going to get you anywhere and she is too talented to do that to herself. It affects our team. I really thought that Porsche has really proven that she belongs out there and she gives great energy. She creates shots for other people, as well as herself. We can move on and she [Jasmine Thomas] has to kind of join our group. We don't need to join her group - she needs to get moving on ours, and that's just being as honest and real as it is. She's too talented to be a self-implosion kind of person."
Many coaches shy away from that type of bluntness or do their best to avoid confrontation but that statement alone showed why Michigan State has continued to perform well against higher ranked teams - they are not scared of confronting challenges or facing adversity and it almost seems like Merchant feeds off of it. Even as she called timeouts, you could tell from her body language and physiology that she was going to enforce her competitive and spirited will upon her players.
They responded to the challenge.
"I give a lot of credit to Michigan State, every game that I've watched them, they've improved; the Florida State game in particular was a big step up for them," said Texas coach Gail Goestenkors. "Suzy does a good job and has a good combination together, their defense sets the tone and they did well in rebounding. We couldn't keep them off the boards. I am disappointed overall with our effort."
Michigan State continued to impose its will upon Texas in the second half with its constant aggressive play. Whether it was Brittney Thomas' smothering and harassing defense in tallying 8 steals by herself, holding Texas' super freshman and leading scorer Chassidy Fussell to 0 points, being more physical and creating turnovers or Poole's second half contributions, you could see that Michigan State was going to do whatever it needed to do to win the basketball game.
"I know in the first half I got into foul trouble," said Poole. "I just know in the second half, that's what she [Merchant] put me in there for. When I had the open shot, I had to take it and you know I have more confidence in my jump shot and I'm not scared to take it anymore."
They took the fight to Texas so much that their most dominant player to that point - Gayle - became so frustrated by how the events transpired that she lost her composure.
With about 16:03 left, Gayle got called for a foul and in disgust threw the ball down on the court resulting in an immediate technical foul, which was her fourth personal and forced Goestenkors to take her out of the game.
That outburst of frustration ended up being a turning point in the game and a microcosm of how Michigan State's tenacity affected Texas as they never seemed to never recover.
"We don't have a lot of depth in the post and we understand that and Gayle needs to stay in the game," said Goestenkors. "Her fouls were a problem and when she picked up her technical, she had four fouls. I thought we were making a push at that point and when she picked up the technical, which gave her four, I think it took the wind out of her sails."
And just like with its victory of #15 ranked FSU and now #17 Texas, Michigan State has proved that it belongs in the discussion as one of the better teams in the country.
They say that basketball is a game of runs but it also a game of will and fight and that's what 13,375 people witnessed at the Breslin Center. This is a team with a lot of fight and that starts at the top with their head coach Suzy Merchant.
Telling Stat of the night:
27 turnovers by Texas which led to 24 points for Michigan State
MVP of the night:
Suzy Merchant and the Michigan State team. When a coach can push a team beyond their physical limitations in a game and they not only respond but excel at it, that is something very special to watch.
Top Performers for Michigan State:
1. Lykendra Johnson, 20 points on 9-12 shooting (75%), 11 rebounds, 2 blocks in just 27 minutes
2. Kalisha Keane, 20 points, 6 rebounds
3. Porsche Poole, 11 points, 9 of them coming in the second half
4. Brittney Thomas, 13 points and 8 steals
Top Performers for Texas:
1. Kathleen Nash, 17 points, 7 rebounds
2. Ashleigh Fontenette, 13 points
3. Ashley Gayle, 10 points, 4 blocks