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With the return of all five starters, the 1996-97 campaign began with high expectations and the Spartans didn't disappoint.

MSU, which ended the year ranked No. 21, finished the season with a 22-8 overall record, captured a share of the program's first-ever Big Ten title and advanced to its second-straight NCAA Tournament.

The Spartans turned in one of the most successful campaigns in program history and provided memories that will last a lifetime.

"It's always been one of my goals since I've been at Michigan State to win a Big Ten Championship," head coach Karen Langeland said of MSU's championship season. "We have no intention of stopping with just one title, we want it to be the first of many."

MSU's memorable campaign began at the Breslin Center against perennial power and 21st-ranked Texas. Despite a 10-point loss (82-72) to the Longhorns, the Spartans proved that they could compete with the nation's elite.

Following the loss to Texas, MSU reeled off three-straight wins over Kentucky (76-50), Central Michigan (78-64) and Bowling Green (80-52).

Next up was a visit to Bowling Green, Ky., and a rematch with Western Kentucky. MSU led by as many as eight points in the contest, before falling to the Hilltoppers, 83-77.

The Spartans returned home to narrowly defeat Illinois State, 66-64, on a pair of free throws by Paula Sanders with four seconds remaining in the game.

MSU then headed to California for three games and opened its west coast trip with an easy 74-48 win over Fresno State. The Spartans took a 5-2 record to Berkeley, Calif., for the Oakland Tribune Classic.

Seniors Paula Sanders and Tamika Matlock guided the Spartans to a 91-71 victory over UC-Irvine in the opening round of the tournament. Sanders posted the fourth of her 11 double-doubles of the season with a career-high 23 points and 12 rebounds. Matlock ran MSU's up-tempo style to perfection, dishing out an MSU-record 14 assists.

The victory set up a showdown with California in the championship game and the Spartans ran away with the tourney title, running over the Bears, 93-62.

Sanders posted another double-double with 14 points and 13 rebounds, while Matlock bettered her day-old record with 15 assists. She also led the Spartans in scoring with 14 points. The duo landed spots on the all-tournament team, along with Nicole Cushing, while Sanders walked away with tourney MVP and Big Ten Player of the Week honors.

After a short break for the holidays, MSU and its four-game winning streak were primed for the Big Ten opener.

The Spartans, who were picked to finish fourth in the preseason poll, opened the conference slate at home against Indiana and Penn State.

MSU pulled out a low-scoring 62-54 victory over the Hoosiers before dismantling the Nittany Lions, 99-75.

Cushing paced the Spartans with a season-high 26 points against Penn State, while rookie Kristen Rasmussen added 15.

MSU's six-game winning streak ended with a 90-81 road loss to Illinois. The Spartans rebounded from their loss to Illinois with an 83-70 win over Purdue at the Breslin Center. Sanders and junior Jamie Wesley paced four Spartans in double figures with 18 points each, while MSU shot 56 percent from the field.

The following weekend MSU pulled out road wins over Ohio State (66-63) and Minnesota (76-65) to improve its conference record to 5-1.

The Spartans took a break from Big Ten play and returned to the Breslin Center for a showdown with No. 7 Vanderbilt. Senior guard Cheri Euler hit all 11 shots from the field and ended the game with 23 points to lift the Spartans to an easy 82-51 win over the Commodores.

MSU returned to Big Ten play on Jan. 19 when it welcomed intrastate rival Michigan to the Breslin Center before a record 7,519 spectators.

The Spartans cruised out to a 49-30 halftime lead behind 13 first half points by Wesley and held on for a 76-67 victory. Wesley ended the game with 15 points, while Matlock added 17 to help the Spartans improve to 14-3.

After the victory over Michigan, the Spartans broke into the national rankings at No. 24 in the USA Today/CNN Coaches poll. It was MSU's first appearance in the national polls since the 1990-91 campaign.

MSU followed up its win over the Wolverines with victories over Northwestern (88-77) and No. 16 Wisconsin (64-53) to extend its winning streak to a season-high seven games.

The winning streak was ended in Iowa City where the Iowa Hawkeyes handed the Spartans an 82-62 defeat.

The Spartans, who didn't lose back-to-back games all season, rebounded to post wins over Minnesota (102-51) and Ohio State (72-64). In the win over the Gophers, junior Bella Engen came off the bench to score a season-high 22 points, while Rasmussen posted the first double-double of her career with 14 points and 11 rebounds.

MSU dropped a 75-52 road decision to Purdue on Feb. 14, setting up an important showdown with conference leader Illinois on Feb. 16.

Another record crowd of 7,633 packed the Breslin Center and the Spartans responded with a hard-fought 78-75 win over the Illini to move into a first-place tie in the conference standings with just two games remaining.

Rasmussen came up big again for the Spartans, scoring 16 points and pulling down five rebounds against the 20th-ranked Illini.

The Spartans closed out the regular season on the road with games against Penn State and Indiana.

The Nittany Lions got some revenge for their earlier loss to the Spartans by handing MSU a 69-65 loss. The setback put Illinois in the drivers seat for the Big Ten title, but MSU never felt out of the hunt.

"When we lost to Penn State, we knew it was out of our hands," Langeland recalled. "The only thing we had control over was how we were going to play against Indiana."

Despite the tough loss to Penn State, the Spartans took care of business in Bloomington, Ind., handing the Hoosiers a 93-79 loss. Six players scored in double figures led by the freshmen duo of Rasmussen (19) and Reese (13).

With a 12-4 conference record, the Spartans would have to wait for the outcome of the Purdue and Illinois game to know if they could share of piece of their first-ever Big Ten title.

Sitting on a bus on the taramac of the Bloomington Airport, the Spartan team wouldn't board its charter flight for East Lansing until it knew the score of the game in Champaign, Ill. After receiving word of Purdue's 80-75 win over the Illini via cell phone, the Spartans were able to celebrate a long-awaited Big Ten Championship.

With a Big Ten title behind them, the Spartans went into the conference tournament as the No. 2 seed. MSU opened the tourney with an 85-79 win over 10th-seeded Ohio State. Wesley paced the Spartans with a season-high 26 points, while Sanders contributed 14 points and 10 rebounds.

The win set up the rubber match with third-seeded Illinois and this time the Illini would get the better of the Spartans, pulling out a 77-66 victory in the semifinals. Sanders earned a spot on the Big Ten All-Tournament team for the Spartans.

Despite claiming a share of the Big Ten title and sporting a 21-7 overall record, the 24th-ranked Spartans would be forced to go on the road in the NCAA Tournament for the second-straight season.

MSU received the No. 8 seed in the East Region and would face ninth-seeded Portland in the first round in Chapel Hill, N.C.

The Spartans trailed by four points in the final minute of regulation against Portland, but Matlock hit a pair of free throws and Wesley made two more for a 66-66 tie with 42 seconds remaining. Portland regained the lead on Kristin Hepton's bucket with 31 seconds to go, but Wesley answered with a basket with five seconds left to force overtime.

Michigan State scored the final five points, with Sanders' free throw snapping 70-70 tie and Wesley and Rasmussen adding field goals in the final 1:06 of the game to give the Spartans a 75-70 overtime victory.

Rasmussen ended the game with a season-high 23 points, while Wesley finished with 14 points. Sanders contributed 10 points and 12 rebounds.

MSU's win set up a showdown with the No. 1 seed in the East Region, North Carolina.

North Carolina held a slim 28-26 lead at halftime, but the Spartans went on a 12-2 sput midway through the second half to take a 52-42 lead with 9:13 left in the game. MSU held a 63-57 lead with just 1:11 to play, but a Marion Jones three-pointer with 50 seconds left pulled the Tar Heels within three points.

North Carolina called timeout, trailing 63-60, with five seconds remaining in the game. Following the timeout, the Tar Heels inbounded the ball and sank a deep three-pointer with three seconds remaining on the clock to tie the game at 63-63 and send it into overtime. With the momentum in their favor, the Tar Heels went on to down the Spartans, 81-71, in overtime.

Cheri Euler paced the Spartans with 22 points, on 10-of-15 shooting from the field, while Wesley added 16 points, five rebounds and six steals.

"It's still a painful subject," Langeland admits. "We had played a great game and North Carolina got lucky on the last couple of three-pointers they hit. They had not been hitting threes all night. It was just one of those things that happen in sports. Suddenly the game slipped away from us."

Despite the loss, the Spartans turned in one of the most successful campaigns in MSU women's basketball history.

Along with the team accomplishments, several Spartans also reaped the rewards of a successful campaign. Senior Paula Sanders became just the second player in MSU history to earn First-Team All-Big Ten honors. Senior guard Tamika Matlock, who led the nation with a 7.63 assists per game average, earned Second-Team All-Big Ten honors, while sophomore Nicole Cushing was an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection.

Rookie Maxann Reese, who averaged 7.7 points per game and hit a team-high 41 three-pointers, was named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team.

"Last season was the culmination of a lot of hard work by everyone involved with the program," Langeland said. "It was particularly rewarding to do it with the group of athletes we had. They were very deserving of the success, they were very unselfish, they worked hard, they did everything they were supposed to do and were finally rewarded for it."

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