First, Mississippi State must visit Georgia tomorrow evening. And defeat the other Bulldogs too, if they intend to stay with the league’s leaders.
“We haven’t mentioned a thing about South Carolina,” Coach Vic Schaefer said. “My biggest game is in Athens, Georgia, on Thursday night. My kids know that.”
Tipoff is 6:00ct with the SEC Network Plus on-line feed. State is 17-2 and 4-1 SEC, compared to Georgia’s 13-5, 1-4 record. But Schaefer warns about drawing that kind of comparison.
“It’s hard enough going on the road in this league. Then, play a veteran team like Georgia, it’s going to be a challenge for us.”
This is the best five-game SEC start ever, and based on winning three of the last four with Georgia the MSU Dogs have reason for optimism. But Athens has not been a happy visit for State teams over the years. The last of only three successes there came in 2002.
Plus, Schaefer need only remind his team of what happened last week as proof how life on the league road is treacherous. Mississippi State saw its perfect SEC start spoiled by Missouri and the 66-54 score was closer than the contest. That loss cost the Dogs a record #6 ranking as well.
“Hopefully it got their attention, they understand they can’t be distracted,” Schaefer said. “I thought we lost our edge at Missouri, and part of that was my fault.”
The Bulldogs regained that edge quickly and regained the right momentum by thumping Ole Miss 79-51 on Monday, the largest margin of MSU victory ever in the series. More impressive was dominating the rival when stars were having off-nights offensively and others came up big.
The highlight, sort-of, from Monday’s win was victory without a typical output from league-leading scorer Victoria Vivians. She struggled to get eight points against the Rebels with 3-of-11 shooting and had her double-digit offense streak snapped at 17 games. For the last three games Vivians is 14-of-44 from the field and 5-of-18 at the arc. But that’s only knocked her down to 17.5 on the season which still paces the conference.
Besides, that win showed the number of tools Schaefer has to work with as the year progresses. Or, to match-up with when opportunities arise. Against the Rebel post players, starter Chinwe Okorie and backup Teaira McGowan dominated with 10-of-12 shooting and four blocked shots. Complementing them is forward Ketara Chapel, who runs hot-and-cold on offense but when on is a real baseline threat.
Actually the whole lineup has been streaky of late. This probably is more an issue for opponent’s scouting though. Take point guard Morgan William, who leads the SEC with 102 assists. After missing 13 of 16 shots in consecutive games, the soph scored a team-best 16 points Monday and still handed out five scoring passes. And even as guard Dominique Dillingham struggles to make shots, she makes all the other plays whether chasing down rebounds or harassing the other team’s top shooter.
And now Schaefer can plug back in another frontcourt option with the return of forward Breanna Richardson. Having missed two games with a concussion, Richardson was a force against Ole Miss. Now she is back in the rotation or even lineup if it suits the scheme.
“I thought Bre played well the other night,” Schaefer said. “She provides a physical presence as well as a speed presence. She’s somebody we desperately need to have, we were fortunate to go 1-1 without her.”
Georgia does not line-up a big team as in the past. But first-year coach Joni Taylor surrounds lone post Merritt Hempe with a physical group of guards who can take and make treys.
“They have great guard play, two of the best in the league in (Tiaria) Griffin and (Shacobia) Barbee,” Schaefer said. “They really try to spread you out in their man offense and get screens. They’ve got a big physical guard, good shooters, and a heady point guard in (Marjorie) Butler. And Hempe is an ornery cuss inside.”
“We’ve got to go Athens and play a veteran team, starting four seniors and one junior. And a new coach who is doing a tremendous job with them, they play extremely hard.”
Once back from Athens, then the Bulldogs can turn entire attention to South Carolina and Sunday’s 4:00 showdown.