East Lansing, MI — A sudden collapse of Michigan States head coach, Suzy Merchant, was the galvanizing force for the Spartans, as it lit a fire in the fourth quarter, sparking a 14-0 run en route to a trouncing of Illinois, 71-47.
Amaka Agugua, associate head coach for the Spartans, took over for Merchant, and the focus she possessed on still winning the game, was impeccable.
“The fall was very scary for all of us,” Agugua said. “Right after the fall I took the team over and told the team we are playing for her now. All the girls agreed stating that every shot, every defensive possession was for Coach Merchant.”
“We play hard for ourselves and our teammates, but Coach is the one who makes us go,” said senior Spartan guard Tori Jankoska. “She is the one who makes all the decisions and gives up time with her family. We used this as a refocus moment and energized us as a team.”
Jankoska and Taya Reimer wiped the floor with the Illini defense, combining 38 points- over half of the total points earned by the Spartan offense.
First quarter consisted of what seemed to be back and fourth baskets between the Spartans and Fighting Illinois. Reimer held her ground strong under the basket, garnering 7 points in the first period.
The Spartans pulled ahead with baskets earned by Lexi Gussert, Janskoka, and an unbelievable basket by Branndais Agee.
The Illini struggled offensively in the latter portion of the period, missing three of their last shots heading into the second quarter.
“Illinois is a good team,” Agugua said. “They struggled in the non-conference games but the Big Ten is a whole other season, and I think the Illinois players now have a new energy and new focus about them. We knew regardless tonight’s win was not going to be easy.”
Even with Illinois’ 3-0 run to start the second period, the Spartans responded quickly with baskets by the Spartan offense.
“I try and take what the defense gives me,” said Jankoska in response to her lack of shots in the first half. “Tonight they were playing tight and mirroring my side we had to find open people and my teammates were moving around to find open shots and it's pretty nice when you have teammates who can hit shots like that.”
Reimer continued to shine throughout the half, earning a quick 12 points to end the half.
The Spartans offense was hot in the third, especially the unselfish, and unbelievable, passing of Taryn McCutcheon and Jankoska. These assists lead Reimer to another five points to her already excellent game against the Fighting Illini.
Illinois defense just couldn’t take the heat from the Spartans.
Spartans guard Branndais Agee exited the game in the fourth quarter due to a collision of knees. It was that same period when head coach Suzy Merchant collapsed to the ground -- she was able to walk herself out of the arena with the help of the medical team.
The energy after the coach exited the game was unreal, as the Spartans sunk the two treys to give the lead to the Spartans 54-43. It was evident, that the players were inspired to play for their fallen coach – and Michigan State did just that.
The Spartans put up a 14-0 run after Merchant’s collapse. The shots continued as the Spartans pulled ahead with three after three- outscoring the Illini 25-6 in the fourth quarter.
“Nothing is ever given; it’s earned, and you have to come out and play with heart… toughness every single game or you are going to get beat,” Jankoska said.
Michigan State went on to beat Illinois 71-47, giving the Fighting Illini their first Big Ten loss of the season. The Spartans improve to 12-3, 1-0 in the Big Ten, while the Illinois falls to 6-10, 1-1 in the Big Ten.
The Spartans will hit the road to Purdue on Wednesday at 6 p.m. Illinois will play the Rutgers on Saturday at 3 p.m.