EAST LANSING, Mich. — Suzy Merchant gave a wave to the crowd and then tried to hide her face Saturday night. The longtime Michigan State coach was embarrassed by the attention, no matter how heartfelt.
She would have preferred the focus strictly be on her Spartans, who were about to play an important Big Ten game against Nebraska. But as the song goes, you can’t always get what you want.
Six days prior, Merchant collapsed on the same Breslin Center court she was now walking onto. When she left with medical personnel early in the fourth quarter of that game against Illinois, the crowd had silenced at that moment, concerned for Merchant’s health and well-being.
Now there were nothing but cheers from the 6,155 in attendance.
“The last time I was out there was kind of embarrassing but I appreciated that. I’d like to thank the fans,” Merchant said after her team finished off a 93-73 victory against Nebraska. “I wasn’t sure how I’d feel. My heart was racing a little when I came back out there, but it was good. This feels like home and I genuinely appreciate people’s concern.
“Sometimes when something like that happens, you don’t really realize all the people that reached out and you impacted in some ways. I guess I didn’t have to die for that to happen. Usually it’s attached to a funeral. I guess that’s a positive thing. I just want to say thank you to all the fans. Walking out there and getting that ovation really won my heart. It’s what makes Michigan State special.”
Merchant was taken to Sparrow Hospital in Lansing after the incident and kept overnight for testing and observation. She was released the next day but when the Spartans took off for West Lafayette, Ind., to play Purdue, Merchant stayed behind. Doctor’s orders.
Michigan State responded to her collapsing against Illinois with a 14-0 run that turned a 46-43 lead into an eventual 71-47 win. The Spartans didn’t have the same fire against Purdue and lost 66-54 on Wednesday.
“I don’t know if it affected the whole team but it’s definitely different,” said senior guard Tori Jankoska, who had quite a night herself. “She’s our head coach and she’s in practice every day and we’re used to seeing her on the sidelines and hearing her voice. For me, she’s a calming presence. Without her I really struggle. It’s not coach Mox (associate head coach Amaka Agugua), it’s just that coach Merchant has been my person here. She’s the one person I know that understands me and where I’m coming from in every aspect of the game. To have her back means the world to me.”
Merchant watched the Purdue game from her couch. It was a different perspective, away from the huddle and the emotion of being directly involved in the game. Whatever she thought or did at home wouldn’t make a difference to her team in Indiana that night — but it would when they returned to East Lansing.
The Spartans (12-4, 2-1 Big Ten) jumped out early on Nebraska, leading 24-12 after one quarter and 46-29 at halftime. Nebraska (4-12, 0-4) cut the lead to 10 points in the fourth quarter but Michigan State responded by keeping its poise even when things got rough near the end as the Cornhuskers continued to foul.
Jankoska finished with a game-high 27 points, moving her to within 6 points of the Michigan State all-time scoring lead. She also became the second player in program history to eclipse 1,800 career points — she sits at 1,811; Aerial Powers scored 1,817 from 2013-16. But Saturday night was all about Merchant.
“Her presence brings so much for our team,” senior forward Branndais Agee said of her coach. “Just her being there with her feistiness, and making sure we’re in our gaps when we’re on defense and when we’re on offense we’re kicking the ball up. Just her presence brings so much to our team to come out and play harder and better.”
That feisty quality has led Merchant to coach teams to 417 wins in 22 seasons at the college level, including 216 now in her 10th season at Michigan State.
Some might call men’s coach Tom Izzo feisty. After finding out earlier in the week that Merchant was fine, the men’s basketball coach joked he might try her fainting spell as a coaching strategy, seeing how well it worked in the immediacy against Illinois. But don’t think Merchant is recommending it to her colleague.
“No, I would not. It certainly wasn’t something I planned on doing and it was probably one of my most embarrassing moments ever. There were a few other questions in the hospital that made me think it could have been worse,” Merchant said. “I would tell (Izzo) to stay the course. I think when he yells at those guys and brings them together and the intensity of which he comments on their activity usually inspires them. I don’t think he needs to stop and drop to make his point.
“But thanks, Tom.”
If there was one good thing to come out of this episode, it was shown the moment Merchant walked onto the court.
“It’s not a good thing that it happened,” Jankoska said, “but I think a lot more people appreciate what she does for us as a team and for the program. We’re just really blessed to be able to have her.”