#18-ranked Mississippi State hosts the Lady Commodores to begin the second-half of the SEC season Thursday evening. Game time is 7:00 with a ‘white out’ planned and 500 free tee-shirts going to first-come students.
“We’re excited about an opportunity to come back home and lay in front of our fans,” Coach Vic Schaefer said. “I’m expecting 5,000 tomorrow.”
With good reason. It’s a high-stakes evening for the Bulldogs, now 21-2 overall and 6-2 in league play. They are the first club in the country, men or women, to reach 21 victories. Schaefer’s squad currently stands third in the SEC standings, behind 7-0 South Carolina and Tennessee and a half-game in front of Kentucky.
But Mississippi State yet to play all three of those co-contenders. They will during a much tougher second-half to the schedule, all in February in fact. So it behooves the Bulldogs to make the most of this month.
And, to even a score with Vanderbilt (12-8, 3-4). The Commodores took a 78-62 win two weeks ago in the only truly bad outing of this season by State. They shot 63% from the floor—no other opponent has topped 55% against MSU—and scored 33 of the points at their own free throw lines.
“Obviously they beat us pretty good the first time. They’ve got our full, 100% attention,” Schaefer said. “The revenge factor goes away the first five minutes, then you just play. We know what we didn’t do well the first time and those are things we can correct.”
This staff and squad have already shown ability to adapt game to game. Or even in games. Despite falling behind at Auburn by double-digits, when a lot of shots just weren’t falling, the Dogs stuck to the scheme and ran away with the second half. This came after an even more intense trip, and win, when freshman Morgan William had to drill a step-back jumper at three seconds to give State their 64-62 win at Ole Miss.
So since a fluke home loss in double-OT to Louisiana State, the Dogs have three solid successes. “They continue to be very resilient and show toughness,” Schaefer said.
What makes the wins to-date more encouraging is that for the most part this squad has not performed to their potential. Which says much about the latter, to be sure. But it also has Schaefer pushing his pups to improve.
Of course getting a more-expected lineup together brings improvement automatically. The return to something like full-strength by Martha Alwal is definite progress. The senior center got her first start of the season at Ole Miss, and delivered a 14-point performance. Alwal came back with 15 points and eight rebounds at Auburn.
And, she knows she can bring more. Particularly on offense where Alwal admits a tendency to be passive and let others do the scoring. “I need to knock that off. I just need to be an all-around player all the game, don’t be content but get involved. I know I can do it, I just have to want it.”
Alwal may not have much choice in the matter. “We need an inside presence,” Schaefer said. “We’re going to give her an opportunity to be that for us. I’m not going to take Martha out of a game unless she’s asking out.”
This doesn’t diminish what starting big forward Breanna Richardson (8.5ppg, 5.9) and backup Chiwe Okorie (4.3, 4.8) provide the frontcourt. An offensive Alwal makes them that much more effective. It also, as the coach noted, opens up more perimeter room for forward Victoria Vivians (14.3ppg, 5.1rpg) to get open outside looks or find driving lanes. The freshman phenom took over at Auburn for a stretch with eleven points in State’s 15-2 run.
Now, her coach is emphasizing Vivians upgrade her work on the other end of the floor. “She knows she needs to get better on defense. I’ve challenged her to rebound,” Schafer said. Vivians seems to get the message.
“If my defense isn’t going well I’m pretty sure my offense isn’t going well,” she said.
With Alwal’s return to starting status, the rotation seems just about set for the SEC second half. Jerica James and William split minutes and keep fresh legs at point guard. Senior shooter Kendra Grant has accepted her off-the-bench scoring role and thrived as instant offense. The constant remains Dominque Dillingham’s intense backcourt defense and just plain leadership on either end.
The Bulldogs will need all of that and more for not only this rematch but the next month’s grueling slate. For that matter, Vanderbilt has won seven of the last eight meetings. So winning round-two would boost club confidence in more ways than one.
“Because most of the time in league games, its toughness and resilience,” Schafer said. “It’s all about the ability to not let it get to you.”