STARKVILLE — Suzy Merchant had a feeling things weren’t going to be easy.
The Michigan State women’s basketball coach is friends with Belmont women’s basketball coach Cameron Newbauer, so she knew what to expect Friday morning in the first round of the NCAA tournament, and it bothered her.
True to Merchant’s fears, No. 13 seed Belmont didn’t make things easy, but No. 4 seed Michigan State used a combined 51 points from Aerial Powers and Jasmine Hines to beat No. 13 seed Belmont 74-60 on Friday in Humphrey Coliseum.
“It was kind of a David-and-Goliath thing, and they had the shooters to compete,” Merchant said. “Shots were going in. Cam does a really good job, and they run a million and one plays. We knew it was going to be a little bit of a struggle to kind of guard through everything they did.”
Powers led Michigan State (25-8) with 27 points, nine rebounds, and four assists. She tied for team-high honors with two steals. Hines added 24 points and seven rebounds to send Michigan State on to Sunday, where it will play No. 5 seed Mississippi State, a 60-50 winner against No. 12 seed Chattanooga, for a spot in the Sweet 16 in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
The Bruins (24-9) trailed 52-46 to begin the fourth quarter. That’s when the Spartans went on a 10-0 run to put the game away. Branndais Agee started the quarter by knocking down a jumper, but the officials called a foul away from the ball on Belmont. The shot counted and Michigan State retained possession. Hines made it a four-point possession with a jumper.
Powers added a 3-pointer on the left wing in transition and Hines converted an old-fashioned 3-point play to push the lead to 62-47 with 8 minutes, 38 seconds remaining.
Newbauer said the run happened so quickly he didn’t know it was going on until he looked at the scoreboard.
“They’re one of the best teams in the county in transition,” Newbauer said. “They can score so quickly, and that’s what they started to do.”
Powers said defense sparked the run. The Spartans forced the Bruins to miss two shots in that spurt that helped them get out in transition and pull away.
Powers was 11 of 21 from the field (4 of 7 from 3-point range) and 1 of 3 from the free-throw line for her 20th game of 20 or more points this season. In the process, she became Michigan State’s all-time leading scorer (1,803 points) and give.
Powers removed all doubt when she made her final 3-pointer off one foot from 25 feet with the shot clock expiring to make it 74-56.
“I looked up and there were two seconds, so I just looked at the rim and heaved it,” Powers said. “Luckily it went off the glass and went in.
“When that happened I was like, ‘Let’s go.’ ”
Newbauer said the Bruins couldn’t pull all their focus on Powers because the Spartans have other players who can step up. Hines did just that, recording her fourth 20-plus point game on 9-of-12 shooting. She averaged right over 10.3 points per game entering the NCAA tournament.
“Coming into this game, we knew we might kind of have an advantage inside, so we really worked on that in practice, and we carried it over into the game,” Hines said.
The Bruins led 5-2 early, but the Spartans went on a 12-0 run to take a 14-5 lead with 4:28 left in the first quarter. Belmont finished the quarter on a 12-6 run and trailed 20-17 after the 10 minutes.
Down 34-26, the Bruins finished the first half with layups by Kylee Smith, off an assist by point guard Darby Maggard, and Lauren Thompson, off an assist by Ellie Harmeyer, to cut the deficit to 34-30 at halftime.
Belmont hung tough in the third quarter, but after a layup and a 3-pointer by Maggard and a free throw by Frankie Joubran cut Michigan State’s lead to 50-47, the Spartans began to pull away.
“You want to push past that hump,” Smith said. “It’s definitely frustrating, but I never once doubted our team.”
Smith had 16 points, including the first seven in the third quarter to cut it to 40-37. Merchant said 5-foot-8 Tori Jankoska was guarding Smith early on, but she switched the 5-foot-11 Agee onto the 5-foot-11 Smith.
“Her length and athleticism I think did a much better job defending her and staying down with her,” Merchant said.
Joubran scored a team- and season-high 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting off the bench. She ended the Spartans’ fourth-quarter run with a jumper, but the Bruins were outscored 22-13 in the final quarter. Merchant called the 6-foot-1 junior the difference-maker and X-factor for the Bruins.
“Just finding a mismatch with my first step compared to someone else’s first step,” Joubran said. “I think I found my role this year as coming off the bench to be a spark.”
Michigan State was coming off a loss to Maryland in the Big Ten Conference tournament championship game on March 6. The school was on spring break last week, which meant Merchant’s scout team wasn’t there to help her team prepare.
But the Spartans still were able to play good enough down the stretch to outlast the scrappy Bruins.
“I don’t think we played great,” Merchant said. “It’s been a while since we played and you could tell a little bit. It was just good to finally get into a groove. I was really proud of our team just staying in the fight, and, obviously, that fourth quarter being able to put their foot on the gas and making a decision to go win the game.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Ben Wait on Twitter @bcwait
Ben Wait reports on Mississippi State University sports for The Dispatch.