On an evening the host Bulldogs missed two-thirds of shots, lost most battles on the boards, and struggled in the physical matchup that annually gives them most fits…they still won. Mississippi State pulled itself together for five final minutes and escaped with a 58-49 victory over visiting Georgia.
“I’m not sure how we won the game, to be honest,” Coach Vic Schaefer said.
Except he is. With his usual leaders struggling against a tall, physical, and aggressive Georgia squad, Schaefer was able to call on a couple of bench-Dogs to change the game.
Second-center Teaira McCowan gave what is becoming a normal rotation performance with 14 points and nine rebounds. That stabilized a tense situation.
Ketara Chapel turned the team towards the win. She matched McCowan for game scoring honors at 14, added seven rebounds, and came up with the main momentum baskets. It was the backup forward who gave Mississippi State the lead, for good, with a baseline basket and bonus free throw at 2:46.
Nine of Chapel’s season-high 14 points came after intermission…and after encouragement from Schaefer, of a sort. “At halftime Coach got on me about how I was going to respond,” Chapel said.
Answer: just fine. The backup tag-team were the biggest parts in State out-scoring Georgia in bench points 34 to 19.
#3-ranked State is 26-1 and stayed in a first-place SEC tie with South Carolina at 12-1. The dozen league victories are a program-record. Georgia left 13-13, 5-8.
But the other Dogs darned nearly left with a SEC- and NCAA-shaking upset. They led for over 31 game-minutes and were still in front 46-45 at 3:05. Whenever State seemed ready to take control, Georgia was able to do something in response and keep a shot or two worth of margin.
“We’re not immune to having bad days, bad games,” Schaefer said. “We’re fortunate, lucky to win today.”
It wasn’t luck on Georgia’s part. Save when the 6-7 McCowan was on the court, the visiting Dogs were either as tall or taller than the Bulldogs they guarded. And did they guard, so well that State was just 2-of-17 to begin the game. Their zone was wide enough to keep State’s set-shooters from getting set.
Yet Georgia was athletic enough to cut off driving lanes as well, which had the home Dogs flustered and just passing around the long perimeter.
They were especially tough on State starters. The tipoff team was a combined 4-of-28 and three of those starters didn’t make any field goals at all. Leading light Victoria Vivians was badly off her game at 2-of-15 and 1-of-10 on trey tries.
Georgia wasn’t so much better on offense themselves, if only first shots were counted. Their best ‘gameplan’ was to recover a miss and score it from closer range. It worked well with 15 second-chance points and for that matter more un-credited third-chance baskets. State wasn’t in bad rebounding positions, just the balls took caroms which Georgia’s length and leaps let them grab.
So after taking a 4-2 lead on Cayla Robinson’s jumper at 6:46 Georgia didn’t trail until the final minutes. They led as much as 17-8 in the second quarter with State able only to get within 21-19 at the break.
Schaefer had feared his team would struggle after a bad practice. What saved this day though was something the coach installed only in Thursday’s shootaround. He called it ‘51’ which basically was running the shooters around the baseline and, when defenders chased, slipping Chapel in behind.
It worked. Not as well as it ought, in fact, because a couple of times an uncertain Chapel turned down short shots. When she took them though, she made good. She also stepped outside and left alone bombed a trey that seemed to throw Georgia off their defensive stride.
Still State’s own defense lagged as they allowed as many third-quarter points as the whole first half. Fortunately foul troubles began building for Georgia, the shots were missing and State getting more boards. Bulldog defense also caught up with transition and coaxed Georgia into cheap turnovers.
Twice Chapel made shots for leads, the second one sticking. Benched for half-a-game, point guard Morgan William subbed-in for the stretch run and nailed a trey at 2:13 that put her team in control.
So did getting a lot of home court calls in the final two minutes. “Free throws,” UG Coach Joni Taylor, a Meridian native, said. “That’s the story of the game. We put them on the line 27 times, they get 23 points.
“Our kids did a good job keeping them off-balance. They flipped it in the fourth quarter, I felt we were a little hesitant and they turned up the energy.”
William had 11 points for State and Vivians did make enough one-pointers to get to 10. Georgia’s Robinson had a team-best 13 points, all off the bench; while Mackenzie Engram had nine points and seven boards before fouling out.
Schaefer’s frustration still showed in post-game, since his team now has to get back on track as they go back on the road for trips to Texas A&M and Kentucky. Still, title teams have to be tested.
“I’m proud of our toughness down the stretch,” Schaefer said.