Michigan State beats Middle Tennessee 60-59

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EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP)—Michigan State stymied the nation’s leading scorer just in time.

Alysha Clark scored 34 points but none in the last 11-plus minutes and fouled out with 1 1/2 minutes left. That gave the ninth-seeded Spartans the boost they needed for a 60-59 win over No. 8 seed Middle Tennessee on Sunday in the NCAA tournament’s first round.

“There were a lot of doubters about what we were doing,” Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant said. “We weren’t going to leave a shooter to help. If that kid got 40 or 50, we weren’t going to let the (3-point) arc take over.”

Michigan State’s Mia Johnson made a tiebreaking 3-pointer with just over a minute left. Brandi Brown made a layup to get the Blue Raiders within one, but Middle Tennessee didn’t get a shot off after calling timeout with 10 seconds left.

“I asked our players, ‘Is this going to be your finest hour or your darkest moment?”’ Merchant recalled saying in the final timeout.

Clark had 25 points by halftime, two shy of her scoring average, including her team’s final 19 in the first half and its first eight in the second.

After a 15-point lead turned into a deficit, she made a three-point play midway through the second half to put her team back ahead.

Then, she didn’t score again.

“The big girl (Allyssa DeHaan) got in her head a little bit,” Middle Tennessee coach Rick Insell said. “She would’ve got in my head, too.”

Michigan State’s Aisha Jefferson scored 20, reserve Kalisha Keane had 13 points and Cetera Washington scored a season-high 12.

The Spartans set up an intriguing second-round matchup on Tuesday against top-seeded Duke and their former coach Joanne P. McCallie, who bolted for a seemingly better job two years ago. The Blue Devils beat 16th-seeded Austin Peay 83-42 in the second game at Michigan State’s Breslin Center.

The Spartans needed fan support in the first round against the Blue Raiders, who took control on the opening possession when Clark scored on a reverse layup.

“We loved the home crowd,” Washington said. “That helped fire us up even more.”

Clark’s ability to score inside and out—despite being almost a foot shorter than one of her defenders—and all-around skills helped Middle Tennessee lead 27-12 midway through the first half.

The Blue Raiders led by six at halftime thanks in large part to Clark making 10 of 17 shots, including both 3-point attempts.

Michigan State, though, drew a charge against Clark in the opening seconds of the second half, and DeHaan swatted some of her shots to finish with six blocks.

“I expected her to be on me,” Clark said. “She’s 6-9. I’m 5-10. I knew she’d block some shots. I couldn’t stop going at her.”

Clark made a three-point play to put Middle Tennessee ahead 47-45, then deferred to her teammates as the defense swarmed around her. They delivered to give the Sun Belt champions a seven-point lead with 3 1/2 minutes left.

After Clark fouled out, Johnson’s go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:10 to go proved to be the game-winner because Middle Tennessee failed to even attempt a shot on the final possession with its star on the bench.

“You could see they had a wide-eyed look and an uh-oh feel to them,” Merchant said.

Clark was 14-of-25 from the field, connected on both 3-pointers and all four free throws. She also had 10 rebounds, four steals and nine turnovers. None of her teammates scored in double figures. Brandi Brown scored nine, and Jackie Pickel had eight points.

The Blue Raiders (28-6) earned an NCAA tournament bid for the fifth time in six years. They advanced to the second round in three of the previous four appearances.

Michigan State (21-10) is in the NCAAs for the sixth time in seven seasons, making it back to the field after missing out during Merchant’s debut season last year.

McCallie led the Spartans to the 2005 championship game, then left two years later to lead Duke.

Updated Sunday, Mar 22, 2009

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Top Performers

 Top Performers
 Middle Tenn. St.
Alysha Clark Alysha Clark
14-25,  34 Pts
10 Rebs, 2 Assists
 Michigan St.
Cetera Washington Cetera Washington
5-8,  12 Pts
6 Rebs, 6 Assists

Team Stat Leaders

Points
Rebounds
Assists

NCAA Tournament Scoreboard

Sunday, Mar 22