#13 Ladydogs Challenge #10 Kentucky

You can call it a tour-of-top-twenty stretch. Or perhaps it serves as a tune-up for tournament time. By whatever label this February is an extended test…which the Lady Bulldogs are passing, so far.

Now #13 Mississippi State continues a grueling month with not just another top-twenty matchup. This one is on the road, at #10 Kentucky with a Thursday evening tipoff at Memorial Gym.

For a mid-February meeting the stakes have begun stacking up for both ball clubs. Maybe not so much in rankings terms; a loss shouldn’t hurt anyone’s image and there isn’t a lot of open room in front these days. But what happens in Lexington likely carries over well into March. April, even.

Because, Mississippi State (23-3) arrives sharing SEC third place with Louisiana State at 8-3. The Wildcats (18-5) are right behind at 7-3, having already played both of the 10-0 league teams ahead of everyone (South Carolina, Tennessee). State has a loss at Tennessee and meets the Gamecocks at the end of the month.

Such scores and schedules loom larger every week. And Thursday’s collision is quite coincidental in these terms. For starters, Coach Vic Schaefer says the winner takes a big step towards one of the priceless first-day byes at the SEC Tournament in Little Rock.

“I don’t talk a lot about it. But I obviously pay attention. There’s five games left and three or four us trying to get in those 3-4 spots.” Though, Schaefer added quickly, “I’ve tried to maintain a big-picture attitude just wanting us to get better every ball game.”

There’s nothing too wrong with looking forward at this point. Especially as after outlasting Texas A&M in overtime Sunday, the Bulldogs are just about locks for a NCAA Tournament bid. An eight-SEC-win squad has earned at least that, if unofficially. Weeks with a top-twenty ranking don’t hurt either.

So yes, there is much for Mississippi State to feel positive about today. “But we can’t get complacent,” guard Dominque Dillingham said. “We know we can play with anybody, but we have to play to the best of our abilities to win.”

The Bulldogs did not do that Sunday, in another of the top-twenty matchups that dominate the month. But even with some of the regular leaders struggling with shooting or scoring or fouls, or all of it, Mississippi State stayed in striking distance for forty minutes. Then they came back from two four-point overtime deficits to knock off #14 A&M.

Maybe it’s a sign of ever-improving self image, but days later the Bulldogs are down-playing things. Just a little. “It’s just another win,” guard Morgan William said. “We have to get past it and on to the next one. It was a good win, though.”

For her part Williams has more than a win to ‘get over’. She was named SEC Freshman of the Week after making three huge stretch-drive plays so State could get to overtime. “It’s a good honor, I don’t know how I feel about it. My teammates made it a big deal! But I guess it’s good.”

It’s a very, very good indicator of the club Schaefer has to work with down the regular season stretch and with post-season play ahead. William doesn’t start after all; she’s the second point guard after veteran Jerica James. For that matter State can call on Savannah Carter as well to run the offense. Such point guard depth might be atypical of course…but not too much so for State.

For every starter, Schaefer has a backup who is really more an alternate. It’s not a platoon system exactly, no 1A/1B deal. Simply, the third-year coach has individuals at the ready every minute to take someone’s place for rest, for struggles, for whatever. Even better, the alternates and subs or whatever one calls them produce.

“Everybody on this team can score. And we have a lot of people on the team that can step up defensively at times,” said Dillingham. “I feel if someone is off their game then someone else can come in and help.”

This depth is how State thrived in pre-SEC play despite having senior center Martha Alwal and senior guard Kendra Grant recovering from injuries. Now everyone is available. Alwal likely benefited, unintentionally, from a slow return. She’s relatively fresh for the last third of the schedule and any rust has been knocked off since.

Grant, whose fascinating and frustrating relationship with her coach will never end, seems to keep a good humored-outlook on her status. Only freshman Victoria Vivians is a more consistent scoring threat, shooting outside or driving inside, and not by much if any margin. In fact it was Grant who stuck the clutch top-jumper Sunday that tied things up and led to overtime, after two good State stops on the other end.

Vivians did not have a big day against the Aggies. She did have the biggest shot though. Despite 1-of-6 shooting up to then, State got the ball to the rookie down two points in OT for the corner jumper. Vivians hammered it home for a lead the Dogs kept.

With Breanna Richardson starting alongside Alwal and even able to play her post position; Ketera Chapel and Chinwe Okorie ready on the bench; the frontcourt is stocked for all situations, too. Up to Sunday if one had to pick an ‘irreplaceable’ Bulldog, it would have been Dillingham. The down-and-dirty defender and as-needed shooter is the obvious key to the club…

…then she fouled-out one play into overtime and State still made defensive plays. This much as any other win showed how well the Bulldogs have developed in year-three, to rank in the SEC’s upper-tier of teams.

But staying here, as well as securing that Little Rock bye and upgrading NCAA seeding, requires more work. Very hard work in Thursday’s case. Kentucky may be a step behind South Carolina this year but both those losses were nailbiters. At home, the Wildcats are nearly unbeatable.

Schaefer thinks he has a club now that can play in the Lexington den. Play at the home team’s preferred pace, too, which is end-to-end and every minute. “So it’s a battle of two teams that play really hard, push the tempo a little bit,” Schaefer said. “They’re playing well. Matthew (Mitchell, the MSU alumnus coaching UK) does a great job. And it’s two mirror image teams with the way they like to play defensively. So we’ll have our work cut out for us, and I’m sure it will be a great ball game.”

A great opportunity for Mississippi State, too. Again, losing a road game to a direct SEC peer won’t do much damage. Winning? Now, that can really open up some serious post-season possibilities. There is even speculation that if the Bulldogs should knock off either Kentucky or South Carolina and take care of other regular-season business, they won’t just play in the national tournament.

Mississippi State could realistically host NCAA play in Humphrey Coliseum. That will require a really, really good NCAA seeding to be sure. But the Bulldogs can still build that resume. And thanks to record-pace fan support this season the Hump would serve NCAA needs for hosting.

As Schaefer said, “It keeps us in the hunt now for some real special things.”

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