“It’s not for the weak or faint of heart but it’s what you signed up for. And we’re excited about the opportunities before us.”
Mississippi State hearts need to be strong these days. Because SEC season has been a wild ride already, swerving from a record 3-0 start to consecutive losses; and now a win to hopefully turn the Bulldogs back in the right direction.
Though the ‘direction’ this team is taking is towards a destination few Dogs enjoy visiting. Schaefer’s club takes on Ole Miss tomorrow evening at 8:00, with SECN broadcast. Just ask one of the squad’s seniors about rematching with the Rebels.
“I always take it as an important game, number one because of the rival,” guard Kendra Grant said. “We’re going there first and they’re going to come here. So we really want to get a win on the road. I’m looking at it as redemption, too, learning from the other losses we’ve had.”
To be sure losses at Vanderbilt and to LSU, in double-overtime at home, did not damage State’s national standing. The Dogs are 19-2, 4-2 SEC, and remained in the top-20 with a #18 ranking by Associated Press. The Coaches poll shows State 20th. So the experts understand life in the SEC.
Schaefer himself understands those were not ‘bad’ losses image-wise, but did cost his team ground in the conference race. Especially last week’s shootout with LSU that was right there for the winning repeatedly. “I hate losing at home and I hate losing in front of our fans. The bottom line is you better learn from it because you’re going to be in that same spot in this league.”
Oxford sets up as a tough spot to visit this week. The Lady Rebels are 14-5, 4-2 as well, and on a two-win run. They are also 11-2 at home so far and making some unexpected noise in the SEC. Count Schaefer impressed.
“We’ve got to go on the road and play a really good team, those kids are playing really well and with a purpose. And they’ve gotten better and better. So we’ve got our hands full. We expect a big crowd over there and a great environment.” Some of that crowd will be cheering the visitors as a bus-load of Bulldog fans are making the trip.
Sophomore guard Dominque Dillingham is looking in more practical terms at the matchup. “They attack the rim really hard so we’ll have to focus on keeping them in front of us. And the guards might be quicker than LSU’s but they’re not a strong, so we have to keep up with them.”
Dillingham was talking defense first. That’s not only natural to her, one of the SEC’s toughest and toughest-minded guards on D. It is Mississippi State’s mindset overall, and sound—often strong—defense has served Schaefer’s squad well. But these days the coach is turning more attention to the other end.
For good reason. Following Sunday’s 66-50 win over Alabama, “We’re obviously struggling to score right now, having a hard time putting any stretches together,” Schaefer said. After averaging well in the 80s in pre-SEC play, the Bulldogs have averaged just 64 points in league games.
This is not a slump per se. It is exactly what Schaefer expected when a still-young lineup collided with league reality.
“I looked at the stats, our top six minutes (played) we’ve got two freshmen, three sophomores, and one senior.” And that senior, center Martha Alwal, is coming off the bench after a long slow stretch of missed games for health and other reasons. Point guard Jerica James is the only senior starter and she shares lots of minutes with alternates Morgan William and Savannah Carter. With so many first- and second-season players starter or alternating, hitting conference season was sure to bring bumps and bruises.
“Without doubt SEC defenses, SEC scouting reports, SEC players, all those things are so much better once you get into the league,” Schaefer said. Though, he noted, watching other conference games reminded him everyone struggles to score a lot of points now and his team’s average actually looks good by comparison.
But Schaefer knows State can do more and better with the ball. “From a coaching perspective we’ve got some good offensive weapons and we have to figure that piece out.”
The biggest piece prior to league play was of course freshman phenom Victoria Vivians. She still leads with a 14.2 point average, the only Dog in double-digits in fact due to all the time-splitting. But Vivians’ production has dropped dramatically for two weeks as defenses scout and scheme for her combination of outside shooting and aggressive attacks of the rim.
So State is looking for others to step up. A healthy and happy Alwal (7.1ppg, 51% field goals) is the first option in the post, reinforced by starting forward Breanna Richardson (8.2, 6.0rgp). Guard Grant is also high on redshirt post Chinwe Okorie as part of the post rotation.
“Chinwe is a beast, one of the strongest I’ve seen through the SEC. Martha is coming back. When she gets back in the swing of things she’ll be OK. I still have the utmost confidence in them.”
Grant’s up-and-down dealings with her coach is a fascinating side-show at times. But it’s clear that Schaefer counts on his senior shooter and play-maker in the crunch. Grant has had to battle back from her own health issues and is only netting 6.5 points, but remains the best pure shooting option in the offense. And there is one other interesting aspect to the two upperclassmen. The minutes missed by Alwal and Grant in November and December, might leave them a bit fresher for the stretch run of their last SEC season together.
Besides that, Schaefer has been able so far to keep rotating players regularly without disrupting team chemistry. Only Dillingham averages a lot of minutes regularly. That’s because she is the unquestioned leader on defense who needs to be on the floor regardless of lineup.
State will need all the leadership and scoring and defense available Thursday evening. This is one of those ‘swing’ games which can put the winner on a contender’s trajectory, especially if the Bulldogs are able to steal a road win. True, it is not yet half-point of the SEC schedule.
But looking at the second half shows State’s stiffest tests are still ahead. So this trip is both a challenge and an opportunity for the Bulldogs to position themselves for both February and even March tournament play.
“You have to win the games you’re supposed to win, be highly competitive on the road,” Schaefer said. “And every now and then sneak up and win one you’re not supposed to win.”