Becca Mills put it best: “Coach loves defense.”
The Michigan State sophomore forward was referencing her coach Suzy Merchant, who was all smiles after her No. 4-seeded Spartans squad knocked off No. 1-seeded Penn State, 54-46, in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament on Saturday.
It was the Lady Lions’ (25-5, 14-2 Big Ten) second loss in the past four games, but what may have been more alarming was how the Big Ten regular season champions lost.
They were held to 22.4 percent shooting from the field and scored a season-low 46 points — their lowest total since Feb. 4, 2010 when they netted 44 points in a 65-44 loss, also at the hands of the Spartans.
The only Lion who found any consistency on the offensive end of the floor was junior guard Maggie Lucas. She finished the game with 23 points on 7-for-22 shooting and all of her field goals came from downtown.
Fellow guard Alex Bentley finished with eight points and senior post players Mia Nickson and Nikki Greene each accounted for four points.
After jumping out to an early 16-5 lead, the Lions could not seem to find a rhythm and struggled from the floor. The squad did not hit a shot from the field in the final 12:40 of the first half and was held scoreless for just over seven minutes of play.
The Spartans credited that success to their ability to turn up their defensive pressure.
“We knew that they were really good at attacking to the middle, so we downed the ball screens to take that away,” Mills told the Big Ten Network after the game. “I think that got to them a little bit and took them out of their offensive flow.”
Mills finished the game with 16 points on 7-for-13 from the field and nine rebounds. Teammate and senior guard Jasmine Thomas led the Spartans with 19 points and also snagged six boards.
After falling short of the achieving their hopes of sweeping the conference hardware, the Lions will now have some time off before the NCAA Tournament, which begins Mar. 23.