After Sunday’s gutsy and first-ever win at Tennessee, the #4-ranked and unbeaten Ladydogs now come home. And come down in time to host Florida with 8:00 tipoff in Humphrey Coliseum.
Fifth-year coach Schaefer is doing his part to turn attention entirely. “We obviously have a big one coming up,” he said of facing Florida.
How big the matchup is see elsewhere is an honest question.
Still the peril of a top-four team on a winning streak, now just one short of tying the start of the 2015 team, is on the coach’s mind. Mississippi State (17-0, 3-0 SEC) has reached the desirable and dangerous position where they have much, much more to lose in such matchups than they can gain by taking down an unranked opponent.
Though, the Gators (9-7, 0-3) oughtn’t be written off too quickly. Florida did take a tough blow with the loss of Eleanna Christianaki to injury seven games ago. She was averaging 17.6 points and the top outside shooting threat. Since then Florida has lost six of nine games and all three league contests by an average dozen points. That includes an 81-62 home loss to #5 South Carolina on Sunday, while Mississippi State was taking down Tennessee.
Still, “Florida is really good. They’re playing very well,” Schaefer said. “I think they’re really starting to find their chemistry. They’re doing a lot of things defensively that can really cause you some problems. They can get up and down the floor and are athletic. We should have great focus and prepare for them.”
The other threat, maybe, to Bulldog focus is being back on the home court. It’s good being in the Hump again, of course. Schaefer’s aggressive pre-SEC scheduling, with NCAA seeding in mind, paid off in the record. But there were only three home games prior to conference season.
When Mississippi State did get to host a SEC opponent, though, they destroyed old rival LSU before a strong New Years Day crowd. With fine Thursday weather forecast and fans eager to cheer the nation’s #4 team, turnout ought be strong. And with this comes the risk, maybe, of getting caught up in the electricity and not taking the guest seriously enough.
However. If these Bulldogs were to get distracted, it was in their recent road swing. And as Schaefer said, “We played really bad Thursday. We were not very good at Arkansas at all in a lot of areas.” Good enough to routine their way to a win, at least. Tennessee, was not at all routine.
Least of all when fouls added up early and often for the visiting team, and the Vols ground out a lead in a building where they had lost just 33 games ever. The Bulldogs didn’t rattle. Even bigger in the long-term outlook, as starters had to sit backups took over roles and made plays at each end to take a halftime lead that lasted to the end.
It was State’s first-ever victory in Knoxville…but the third-straight in this series. That showed, said Schaefer. “Like Dom (Dillingham) said, after you play them a couple of times you don’t let the other stuff get so big you don’t function. Our kids have learned to function in that environment.”
There’s a reason, said guard Blair Schaefer. “We have more confidence this year. It comes with experience, but we get it from each other.”
Getting healthier boosts the confidence. Senior guard Dillingham is the chief example. She missed six pre-SEC games with a knee procedure and as her coach said needed to knock off some rust once returned. Now Dillingham (5.9ppg) is almost as shiny as new, though she is still working on getting those shots to drop more consistently. Her defense and sheer grit makes up for most misses though.
Besides, junior point guard Morgan William (11.4ppg) has emerged as State’s most improved player and perimeter key. Though 4-of-18 coming in, he hit two huge end-of-quarter treys at Tennessee, while playing gritty defense against bigger opponents and keeping a strong assist/turnover ratio.
William’s challenge for MIP is of course senior post Chinwe Okorie (9.6ppg, 6.6rpg). Okorie has improved to a 57% shooter and will keep getting better. When the officials let her, that is, as the big center attracts whistles as at Tennessee. But increasingly Teaira McCowan (6.2, 5.7) is just as efficient and no easier a matchup for defenses.
Of course the offense looks first and frequently to Victoria Vivians (16.7ppg, 30 treys). Her scoring alone will help the junior repeat as All-American. What encourages Schaefer is how Vivians now approaches the other end of the court.
“Victoria wanted to be in that moment defensively the other night, and she responded,” the coach said of Vivians coming up clutch without the ball Sunday.
Still the best takeaway from Tennessee other than a historic win which will only strengthen the NCAA stature was the ‘second team’ putting on its show. This actually is a double-edged situation for Schaefer.
He has two entire units and even more depth to play with, true. But, “Finding playing time and finding the right playing time is two different things.” All things considered, though, Schaefer likes it better this way.
“The luxury is I have a starter to go in and fix what is broken.” By which he means that some of this season’s “backups” have been starters before. It says much for all that they’ve accepted whatever roles and minutes and kept winning games.
“I think our kids enjoy it, because of who they are,” Schaefer said. “It’s not who starts, it’s who finishes a game a lot of times.”
After this game, Mississippi State has an extra day to prepare for the next. And a big one it is, as the Bulldogs host Ole Miss in a 6:00 Monday matchup.