- Associated Press - Friday, March 18, 2011

EAST LANSING, MICH. (AP) - When Joanne McCallie left Michigan State to coach at Duke, incoming recruits Kalisha Keane, Lykendra Johnson, Brittney Thomas and Cetera Washington didn’t look for a way out.

They stayed and became Spartans under new coach Suzy Merchant.

Turned out to be a good move.

Michigan State won its first outright Big Ten title this season and is a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Spartans (26-5) will play Northern Iowa (27-5) on Sunday night in Wichita, Kan.

“We truly believe we can get to the Final Four,” Thomas said. “Our defense has always been the foundation, and always will be. In the games we lost, we couldn’t get it going offensively. The good news is, we’ve had time to work on our games.”

The Spartans have been idle since March 5 when they lost to Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament.

They would have to win the program’s first national championship to top what McCallie’s best team did in 2005, advancing to the NCAA final. Two years later, McCallie left behind some talent she attracted to East Lansing when she chose to lead the Blue Devils.

“I was in an airport when my coach called to say Coach P went to Duke,” Keane recalled. “I went on the Duke website and there she was, but I didn’t come here just because of her.”

Michigan State moved quickly to hire Merchant away from Eastern Michigan and she didn’t waste any time re-recruiting Keane, Johnson, Thomas and Washington.

“As soon as I got the job, I got in a car and drove to Canada, Illinois and Kalamazoo to talk to each of them,” Merchant said. “I worked pretty hard at it, but any coach would’ve done the same thing because we really needed them.”

It was worth the trip to Ontario to talk to Keane.

The 6-foot-1 forward was the Big Ten player of the year and had the most steals in conference play this season _ the first Spartan to pull off either feat _ and scored nearly 16 points a game to lead a balanced team.

Johnson, who redshirted as a freshman, was the Big Ten defensive player of the year and All-Big Ten player for averaging nearly 12 points and nine rebounds. Thomas ranks among the school’s career leader in assists.

Washington, the only player who hails from Michigan, does a little bit of everything. The Kalamazoo native might’ve stood out more at another school, but she is happy to give up personal gain for team success.

No one exemplifies that more, though, than Jasmine Holmes. The Palmdale, Calif., native failed to make it as a walk-on as a freshman under McCallie, but stuck around to be a manager.

In Merchant’s first season, she gave Holmes another shot and the 5-10 guard took advantage by making the team in 2007.

“The seniors bring a style of leadership that has made this team successful and special,” Merchant said. “They’re without ego. They’re approachable. They don’t care who gets the credit, they just want to win.”

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