WICHITA, Kan. -- With her team clinging to a three-point lead with 8.8 seconds left, Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant assessed her options.
Should she have her players deliberately foul a Northern Iowa player, or should she trust the Spartans to play effective defense against the Panthers' 3-point shooters? Merchant opted for the latter, which proved to be the right decision.
Guarded closely by Big Ten player of the year Kalisha Keane, Northern Iowa's Erin Brocka air-balled a 3-point attempt as time expired, allowing fourth-seeded Michigan State to escape with a 69-66 win Sunday in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Keane scored 17 points -- all but two before halftime -- and Taylor Alton added 14 for Michigan State (27-5), which has lost only one first-round game in 11 tournament appearances. The Spartans will play fifth-seeded Wisconsin-Green Bay in a second-round game Tuesday.
"I felt like we gave (Northern Iowa) an opportunity to stay in it," Merchant said.
Indeed, the 13th-seeded Panthers, who entered with a 19-game winning streak, hung close all the way, but Michigan State's size and length proved to be too much on the final play.
Northern Iowa coach Tanya Warren wanted to have Missouri Valley Conference player of the year Jacqui Kalin take the final shot, but she was closely guarded and the ball ended up in Brocka's hands as the clock ticked down. Keane stayed on Brocka during the entire sequence and if Keane didn't partially block the shot -- she said she did, Brocka said she didn't -- she definitely bothered Brocka on the play.
"I knew I had time for one dribble," Brocka said. "I don't think she got a piece of it. It didn't quite come off my hand the way I wanted it to."
Warren took the blame.
"We didn't get the look that we wanted," Warren said. "If we had to do it over, we'd do something completely different. ... I didn't put them in a good position to get a good look."
On the other side, Merchant put her faith in her defense.
"The one thing you have to rely on is your defense," she said. "That's how we're built."
Merchant seemed more perturbed with the fact the Spartans put themselves in such a vulnerable situation. Northern Iowa's shorter team outrebounded the Spartans 35-34 and rendered Keane a non-factor offensively in the second half, although she did finish with six rebounds, six assists and three blocked shots.
"We had opportunities to make plays and we just didn't at the offensive end," Merchant said.
The Spartans never trailed but never got comfortable, nearly blowing a 14-point second-half lead. Twice, Alton hit 3-pointers after Northern Iowa had narrowed the gap.
Alton tried to play down those shots, but Keane quickly quipped, "They were huge. Let's be real."
Northern Iowa (27-6) pulled within 63-61 with 3:54 left when Rachel Madrigal hit two free throws, but Brittney Thomas and Cetera Washington answered with baskets for the Spartans. Lykendra Johnson's two free throws with 1:53 left made it 69-62, but the Spartans didn't score again.
Keane missed the front end of a one-and-one with 1:28 left. Kalin, who had 21 points, scored with 1:19 left to make it 69-66. Keane's turnover gave the Panthers a chance to tie, but Michigan State's Porsche Poole drew a charge from Lizzie Boeck with 48.8 seconds to go. Poole missed a shot at the other end with 22 seconds remaining, setting the stage for the final sequence.
K.K. Armstrong scored 17 for Northern Iowa.
The Panthers fared much better than they did in their NCAA tournament debut last season, when they lost by 39 points to Nebraska in a first-round game.
"One thing (Warren) wanted us to do is leave it on the floor, and I definitely think we did that," Kalin said. "We got one shot at the end and it didn't go in."