Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

State Needs Win to Hold Second-Place Pace Down SEC Stretch

Opportunity, or pressure? Call it both for the Lady Bulldogs.

The opportunity is making a late-season run at their highest-ever conference finish…and by extension host NCAA play for the first time as well. Mississippi State’s pressure is avoiding any stumbles down the stretch, starting Thursday evening when Kentucky comes to town.

Game time in Humphrey Coliseum is 6:00, for a top-twenty matchup. The Bulldogs (21-5, 8-4 SEC) are #14 this week while Kentucky arrives #16. It’s the third-straight contest State has faced a ranked opponent.

“The piranhas keep coming in the fishbowl we live in,” Coach Vic Schaefer said.

Sink-or-swim time has arrived for State and several conference peers with four remaining regular season games. The SEC title is not part of this crunch; 12-0 South Carolina has locked up at least a share of the crown and will clinch it outright eventually.

But a second-place finish is still a legitimate Bulldog goal. In fact they are currently tied for that spot along with 8-4 Texas A&M. But the Aggies hold that direct tie-break after last week’s 64-58 win in College Station, so Mississippi State will need some help on that score. And, of course, to run the rest of the four-game slate.

Kentucky (17-6, 6-6) is well-down the standings as of now, tied for eighth. A three-loss streak knocked the Wildcats back into the pack, though they have since recovered to beat LSU and Vanderbilt. The UK program also arrives carrying legitimate confidence regarding this SEC rivalry. They have won the last nine meetings regardless of site, including a double-overtime victory at home last February and following win in the SEC Tournament.

Also, a Kentucky team has not lost in Humphrey Coliseum in eleven winters now. This may not be the same sort of Wildcat team that for the past couple of winters battled for the league title. They are still on a NCAA bid track though and can rattle a lot of SEC cages between now and Jacksonville.

Schaefer expects nothing less than the usual Dog-and-Kat fight Thursday.

“Their post players are unlike any tandem we’ve seen, they’re good face to the basket or back to the basket. And they have other winning players. They’ve had some great wins against some quality opponents.”

Mississippi State has more than enough wins to know post-season is assured. It still stung having a four-win streak snapped in the showdown with A&M last Thursday, and makes this game that much more vital if the Bulldogs want to keep NCAA hosting opportunity alive. They have had a week to think about the situation, though from Schaefer’s standpoint this time was much more useful to just rest.

“We desperately needed the date, it had been a long time. It allowed some kids that needed to heal, to heal.” There aren’t any serious injuries, Schaefer clarified. He just has four Dogs at the moment wearing walking boots from the long season’s grind, particularly workhorses like guards Morgan Williams, Victoria Vivians and most of all Dominque Dillingham who are averaging huge minutes in SEC action. Dillingham in fact gets less than two minutes of rest per league game.

“They needed the time away,” Schaefer said. So did post players Ketera Chapel and Teaira McGowan, the latter needing a shot in ankle this week. The coach gave everyone Sunday and Monday off entirely and the timing was doubly-good as this week brought mid-semester tests on campus.

“We came back yesterday and had a good workout,” Schaefer said. “I expect our kids to play well and hard, we always do. We played hard at A&M, we just didn’t play well enough to win on the road.”

Home games, now, that is where the Bulldogs thrive. They are 13-1 in Humphrey Coliseum with five SEC victories, the lone loss to champs South Carolina. On the home floor State is out-scoring opponents by 31 points and allowing just 35% shooting.

Sophomore Vivians (17.0ppg, 58 treys) has led the SEC in scoring most of the season, but recently dropped to second place behind A&M’s Courtney Walker (18.5ppg). Vivians is closing in fast on 1,000 career points through just two varsity seasons, with 947 going into Thursday. And this week she was named among the 30 mid-season candidates for the Naismith Trophy.

Point guard William is the only other Bulldog notching double-digit scoring this season, at 10.1 points. The soph is third in SEC assists though, and not just by getting Vivians the ball. What makes the Dogs difficult to scout is consistent unpredictability among the supporting cast. Depending on matchups mostly, somebody generally steps up their scoring game. Lately it has been junior Dillingham with double-digit production in four of the last five contests.

Thursday features the third- and fourth-best scoring teams in the SEC. While Kentucky is significantly ahead in sheer shooting, 46% to 40.3%, the Bulldogs are more productive at the arc.

Schaefer and squad know the importance of defending the home floor this week, because the schedule sends State on the road twice more. The Bulldogs have a rematch Sunday with Ole Miss, a rival itching to avenge their 28-point loss in Starkville back in January.

Then they visit dangerous Vanderbilt next Thursday. The regular slate concludes February 28 with a home game against Alabama.

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