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February 25, 2011

Big Ten (outright) champs

Tough 54-53 loss for the MSU women's team to Ohio State, but Penn State's loss allowed the Spartans to celebrate the program's first outright Big Ten title before they left the building Thursday.

    I asked our reporter on the scene, Chris Solari, to send a few thoughts after the game for your reading pleasure. He went nuts. Here you go with some Solaranalysis. Perhaps we can make this a regular feature in March:

    They back-doored their way into it, but Michigan State managed to lay claim to the school's first outright Big Ten women's title on Thursday.
    By virtue of Penn State's home loss to Purdue, the Spartans' 54-53 slugfest defeat to Ohio State ended up costing little more than a bruised ego (and four stitches in Kalisha Keane's left eyebrow). They found out while everyone was still on the court following the ceremony honoring seniors Kalisha Keane, Brittney Thomas, Cetera Washington and Jasmine Holmes.
    MSU's 20-game win streak at Breslin Center still stung as the Big Ten championship banner was being raised and the trophy unveiled. Players thought they still had to go to Minnesota on Sunday to seize the crown for themselves.
    Hearing that Penn State lost, though, managed to assuage some of their frustrations. Unlike the previous two titles, including one under McCallie, MSU didn't have to share this one.
    “Just to hear that somebody helped you out in the conference and let you do it outright, it's comforting to know,” Thomas said. “But I was still kind of PO'ed (about losing to OSU) when they were announcing the seniors and showing the videos about the game.”
    Still, this is a significant accomplishment for both the program and the seniors – three of whom, along with redshirt junior Lykendra Johnson, were recruited here but never coached by Joanne P. McCallie before she left for Duke. Taja Wilson, who transferred to Xavier before this season, was the only defection.
    “It just means a lot to experience this with the senior class,” Johnson said. “It's just a blessing that it happened this year”
    Thomas and Keane, who helped keep the class steered toward MSU, said earlier this week that they knew a coaching change wouldn't make a difference for this talented a group of players. Their bond and confidence have produced a special group that has been as selfless as they've been accomplished during their days at Breslin.
    Keane has played every position from point guard to center. Johnson volunteered to move to the center spot this season from the wing after freshman Madison Williams' season-ending knee injury. Thomas often has deferred her offensive stats to share the ball, yet continues to enhance her scoring. Washington eschewed shooting to focus on being a defensive stopper and fierce rebounder from the wing.
    “I'm just proud of how the represent Michigan State. I really feel like they're tremendous character kids,” Merchant said of her seniors. “The talent piece is there, and then you add in that high character and work ethic and love of the game – you have a pretty solid recipe for success. And it's not about success for them.”
    And just as impressive has been how they've continually welcomed new players into their ranks over their four years, forming an almost equally strong bond with them as they have with each other to lead to the program's third conference crown.
    “When we found out she left,” Washington said of McCallie's departure, “we all decided we were going to stay. And once we got here, we all knew this was a special group. ...
    “We just set goals for ourselves throughout this entire process. This year, we set a goal of being Big Ten champs.”
    Also credit Merchant – with her now fabled tale about driving to each players' homes (in Illinois, Toronto, Pittsburgh and Kalamazoo) to convince them she'd lead them to the ultimate goal of a title – for getting the most out of all of them and defining their roles.
    “Mark Dantonio – four years, Big Ten champion. Suzy Merchant – four years, Big Ten champion. How about that?” athletic director Mark Hollis said before the coach and her seniors tugged the black cloth off the trophy, then hoisting it collectively above their heads with roses in their other hands.
    “I know you are proud,” Merchant told the fans as the younger players started putting on Big Ten championship hats and shirts during the senior celebration, “because I am 100 percent proud of this team and what they've accomplished.”
    They still want more than roses. These players remember McCallie's 2005 group that shared the conference crown with the Buckeyes before making that magical NCAA Tournament run to the title game before falling to Baylor.
    And they've all talked about making that kind of history themselves.
    “I do like to hear all the (talk) about 2005 ... and they won the Big Ten and all those correlations,” Thomas said. “Because, shoot, if that means we're going to get to a national championship, I'm OK with that.
    “I think our class that's going out this year, we really wanted to bring something in that could last. Every class wants to leave its mark. So to hit it on the head this year, our senior year going out, and for the first time clinch it by ourselves – it means a lot. It's cool to know that you're going to be in the books for a little while.”

    Thanks, Solari, good stuff. Go have some mini tacos. One thought from me: Brittney Thomas got a really raw deal on her fourth foul, and I don't think she made contact on the fifth, but she did put her foot out, and it's not surprising that the official who was not in position to make the call made that call. Also, how the heck did Ohio State lose so many games this year? Also, anyone else want to see these teams play for a third time in Indy? I'd pop some popcorn for that.

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Joe Rexrode
MSU Sports Reporter
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