Jefferson helps Sparty stomach BGSU
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Before a postgame news conference after fifth-seeded Michigan State's 72-62 win against No. 12 Bowling Green in Saturday's first round, an NCAA official asked Spartans senior Aisha Jefferson if she could turn around her headband so a certain shoe company's familiar logo wouldn't be visible. She obliged, but it wasn't enough to keep her from an impromptu endorsement for a product probably not among the official sponsors of postseason basketball.
Although come to think of it, it might find willing wallets among coaches and players in March.
"I had a little stomach issue, but I had a lot of Mylanta," Jefferson joked of the ailment that left her hunched over a trash can on Michigan State's bench at one point in the first half.
Jefferson's stomach was in such bad shape Saturday that she threw up during the team's morning shootaround. But by the time she hit a jumper from near the free throw line to extend her team's lead to 10 points with 2 minutes, 40 seconds to play in the game, there was no mistaking the smile on her face as she backpedaled toward the defensive end -- and more importantly, toward at least one more game.
And had Jefferson not found a way to answer the bell, it would have been her team feeling ill.
"She came through huge on the offensive end today and made some really big, acrobatic shots," senior Allyssa DeHaan said. "She is one of our best leaders and vocal leaders. She's been inspirational to me. She's been my leader ever since I came in here."
Jefferson finished with 17 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists and nary a turnover, short of setting a new season high in any single category but her most complete line of the season. She did a good bit of her damage in the first half, keeping the Spartans in the game despite an aerial assault from the Falcons that produced 8-of-16 shooting from the 3-point line by the underdogs and a halftime tie.
Coming into Saturday's game, Jefferson had just seven 3-pointers and 12 steals in 29 appearances and 594 minutes of basketball this season. She had one of each before the first minute had ticked completely off the clock in Louisville, staking the Spartans to an 8-0 lead that proved a life preserver when two-time MAC Player of the Year Lauren Prochaska scored eight in a row by herself to ignite a 15-0 run by Bowling Green.
By the end of the first half, Jefferson had 10 points and 7 rebounds, already above her season average for an entire game in both categories.
"I felt good when I hit my first shot," Jefferson said. "It was my night tonight. We're the type of team where it's my night one night, it's Kalisha Keane's night one night. We're a dangerous team because you never know whose night it's going to be."
When Jefferson was on the court in the first half, Michigan State looked like the physically dominant team it needed to be to beat one of the best-shooting and best-coached programs in the nation, mid-major or otherwise. When she wasn't on the court, her team looked the worse for it -- although not as bad as Jefferson looked with her trash can at the end of the bench.
The stomach problem wasn't related to the flu or, in fact, anything all that new. The condition -- gastroparesis, according to Jefferson -- dates back well beyond this season and often leaves her sick to her stomach. And that's almost a minor nuisance for a player who has battled shoulder, hip and knee injuries (to both knees) throughout her career, including a torn ACL that cost her the 2007-08 season at Michigan State.
Jefferson will play the fewest minutes of any healthy season unless Michigan State wins Monday and gives her another game -- the 27 minutes she played against Bowling Green were her third-most of the season. But what minutes she provides have never been more valuable.
"She's just our heart and soul," Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant said. "That's a kid that probably shouldn't be playing at times, with some of the things she'd had to deal with her injuries. But the thing that I think she brings this team besides the talent piece -- obviously she's a talented basketball player -- is the toughness. Every one of us on this team -- the coaching staff, everybody -- gets what she's going through. And how can you feel bad about a sprained ankle or some minor issue when she's like bone-on-bone and throwing up. She really gives a lot of a gift to this team, and it's more than just points and rebounds."
That kind of description might bring to mind a grim face stoically persevering through five seasons of pain and frustration. And that would be true, assuming that's the personality of the individual Jefferson's imitating at the moment. While she initially professed innocence until it was clear she wouldn't be asked to perform them, she owned up to possessing spot-on impressions of most of the coaching staff and some of the other stars in the Big Ten after Keane sold her out.
"She's just funny," Keane said. "That's it; Aisha equals funny."
The Spartans got big games from all three of their seniors. DeHaan finished with 8 points and 11 rebounds, and Lauren Aitch, like Jefferson a fifth-year senior, added 10 points and 5 rebounds. All also contributed to the team's second-half defensive effort that closed the gaps Bowling Green exploited for open shots in the first half and forced the Falcons to put the ball on the floor.
But from the first minute to the last minute, when she came back in the game as a substitute for DeHaan after the 6-foot-9 senior took a hard fall on her already bad back, Jefferson led the way. Literally in that case, as she walked DeHaan back to the bench while telling her not to worry about the foul call that wiped out a block on the play -- just as she had been the first one off the bench during a timeout near low ebb in the first half, clapping her hands and encouraging teammates to keep playing.
Actions speak louder than words, but it doesn't hurt to have both.
"You've got to have your seniors step up big for you to go far in this tournament," Jefferson said. "I'm going to hold accountability for that part and make sure I got my team ready for battle out here because it's one and done. This is my last season, and I'm going to make sure I don't regret anything. I don't want to go home and be watching the tournament and be saying, 'I wish I woulda, coulda, shoulda.' I'm going to do my job the best I can.
"I'm going to do everything I can to help the team, whether it's scoring, rebounding or cheering on the bench."
Or even huddling up with the trash can at the end of the bench.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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