March 20, 2009

(AP) - Michigan State is allowing just over 50 points per game at the Breslin Center. Middle Tennessee's Alysha Clark has reached the 50-point mark in one game by herself this season.

Led by the nation's top scorer, the eighth-seeded Lady Raiders open NCAA tournament play on the defensive-minded Spartans' home court in the Berkeley Regional on Sunday.

Tough defense has helped No. 9 seed Michigan State (20-10) return to the field of 64 after a one-year absence. The Spartans gave up 50.1 points per game in 14 contests at the Breslin Center, the site of first- and second-round games.

"I think it's great ... whenever you can play in the comfort of your own home," Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant said. "We don't have to figure out where we're going and how we're going to get there. We can sleep in our own beds and get ourselves ready. I'm really excited about the opportunity to play in Breslin and I think that should mean something to these kids."

The Spartans, though, face a tough task in stopping Clark, who leads the nation with 27.3 points a contest. The junior forward had 50 points to lead Middle Tennessee (28-5) to a 75-60 win over Troy on Feb. 11 - falling 10 shy of the Division I record of 60.

Clark has scored 40 points or more three times this season and reached the 30 mark in 10 straight games. That string was broken with a 23-point effort in the Lady Raiders' 74-54 victory over Arkansas-Little Rock in the Sun Belt tournament title game March 10.

Clark also contributes 9.8 rebounds a game for a Middle Tennessee team that will need to play tough down low against the Spartans, who are outrebounding opponents by an average of 8.0.

Coach Rick Insell, though, believes his Lady Raiders will benefit from a tough non-conference road schedule that included games versus Oklahoma, Tennessee and LSU. MTSU went 1-2 in those contests, beating the Tigers on Nov. 30.

"We are not afraid to play people at their places," Insell said. "We will need to dig in a little deeper and take care of the basketball, but we shoot the ball well, we win. It is hard to stop all of our weapons."

The Lady Raiders are the nation's eighth-highest scoring team, averaging 76.9 points. The Spartans are 23rd in scoring defense, giving up 55.0 points.

Michigan State is also ranked 17th in blocked shots (162), thanks largely to Allyssa DeHaan.

The junior center is the Big Ten's all-time leader in blocks with 387. She's averaging 3.1 per game to go with 10.7 points and 6.4 rebounds.

Senior forward Aisha Jefferson tops Michigan State with 11.1 points a contest. She had 15 against Wisconsin in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament, but the Spartans lost 56-50 on March 6.

Michigan State received an at-large bid despite losing three of its last four games. The Spartans are 11-8 in eight previous NCAA tournament appearances.

Middle Tennessee made the NCAAs 10 times prior to this year, going 5-11.

This will be the first meeting between the Spartans and Lady Raiders. The winner will face top-seeded Duke or No. 16 Austin Peay on Tuesday.