#13 Mississippi State did come to life thanks to outside shooting, shaking off a sluggish start to beat Florida 75-62 Sunday. The Bulldogs threw in nine three-point shots, six in the decisive first-half rally, for a key home-court win.
Key, because with Kentucky’s loss at Tennessee and Louisiana State taking the day off Mississippi State (24-4, 9-3 SEC) has third place in the league standings all to themselves. The Wildcats and Tigers are 8-4 going into the final two weeks of conference play.
Forward Breanna Richardson pace a well-balanced offense with 16 points, while center Martha Alwal had her third double-double of the season (34th career) with 14 points and 13 rebounds. Forward Victoria Vivians added ten points with a pair of the three-pointers.
It was Richardson, though, providing the most important longballs. Or scores of any first-half sort for that matter. Though Florida (12-13, 4-8) is one of the SEC’s struggling squads, they did present some matchup challenges with a tall and athletic lineup. The Gators were also catching State at the best possible time.
Schaefer’s team was coming off consecutive overtime games, including a double-OT loss Thursday at #10 Kentucky which would have drained a NBA team of energy and emotion alike. The Gators did all they could to take advantage and for 15 game-minutes were poised to play serious SEC spoiler.
“I thought our kids were a little dead when we started,” said Schaefer, who reported a “horrible” morning shootaround. It must have carried over to tip-off because Florida scored the first eight points, using football-type throws off inbounds or rebounds to beat State’s pressure defense. Maybe the Gators were thinking about a tired opponent, though…
“They did that to us last year in Gainesville. We were moving up in the press, and they were sprinting out long.” But Schaefer told the team they were not getting out of pressure, in hopes sooner or later a thin Gator guards roster would wear down. Mostly, they did.
For the first half though the Bulldogs had to play catch-up. And, adjust the lineup a little. Schaefer replaced Alwal after just one minute with Chinwe Okorie bringing better post defense. With other shooters unable to get good looks, 6-1 Richardson stepped out to the arc to fire. And hit, at 12:31 to nip some Florida momentum.
”We were dying on the vine, that’s why I called on Breanna,” Schaefer said. Not just to shoot outside, but drive if the opening was there regardless of results. “I wanted a trainwreck, something to get to the rim. When she can step out and hit the three that adds a whole dimension.”
“I just had to come out and be aggressive,” Richardson said. “I felt we needed some offense so I had to go attack and finish.” Her free throw at 6:48 tied it up 19-19. Then it was guard Dominque Dillingham, not often the first outside option, pulling on a trey that was good at 6:02.
That longball snapped some sort of shooting hex. In the next five minutes four other Bulldogs stuck shots from the arc. The last was by guard Blair Schaefer, who’d subbed-in moments earlier for technical free throws. She only made one of those chances, having lined up on the wrong stripe to begin.
The corner-bomb made up for everything. It also pushed State’s lead out to as much as a dozen points before exiting with the 40-30 halftime margin. All but six Gator points had been scored in the paint, while the Bulldogs only had eight such short-shot points.
State never led by less than ten points in the second half, and had as much margin as 21 (69-48) down the stretch. That was built largely on longballs again, this time from guard Kendra Grant. She stuck treys at 9:08 and 7:18 around a two-pointer as Florida kept trying to trap one wing and left Grant open on the other.
Grant had missed the entire Kentucky game with illness, she said. “It felt good being back out there. I’ve been able to get my energy back, I felt like I needed to redeem myself.”
Grant, Dillingham, and guard Jerica James all had nine points with a longball, or two. Three-pointing is not Mississippi State’s first offensive option by any means. Schaefer was glad to have it in his playbook this time.
“9-of-19, that’s pretty good. But it all starts with defense for us.” Defense that got a grip on Florida’s first-half transition attack, too. Though the Bulldogs had some help when Gator guard January Miller picked up three fast fouls and played only five minutes in the half. Before sitting, she was 4-of-4 with a trey. Miller only had a dozen minutes in the second period to notch a team-best 16 points.
The foul issues were legitimate though. Bulldogs found their energy enough to take charges, the best sort of turnover to force. By cranking-up the defensive intensity the scoring came. And Richardson’s example helped, Dillingham said.
“It makes everybody else get that attack mindset, that she can step out and hit the three and attack.”
If the Bulldogs had a tough eight days, they do get a break now and don’t play again until next Sunday. That could be one of the classic late-season trap games, at Alabama (13-13, 2-9) if only because Mississippi State will be tempted to look ahead.
Ahead, to their February 26 trip to #2 South Carolina; along with #6 Tennessee the league’s last unbeaten clubs in conference play. Mathematically, the Bulldogs are still in contention for the SEC crown since they have just three games left and the two leaders four.
Short of the championship there is still the matter of locking up one of the four first-day byes at the SEC Tournament. The Bulldogs have little margin to work with though since both Kentucky and LSU own head-to-head wins, each in overtime(s).
Today’s win did take care of some old business, as Florida had won the last nine meetings dating back to 2009. And with 24 victories these Bulldogs have tied the program season record set in both 2000 and 2003.
“Obviously we reached some milestones today,” Schaefer said. “It’s a special team that has a chance to do some special things this year.”