November 10, 2012 12:18:25 AM
Adam Minichino - email@example.com
STARKVILLE -- Martha Alwal and Kendra Grant took the first steps Friday to becoming the leaders Vic Schaefer needs.
Whether it was chasing down loose balls or grabbing nearly every rebound or going aggressively to the basket with the mind-set there was going to be a train wreck, Alwal and Grant showed they are picking up Schaefer's Southeastern Conference mind-set and are ready to take center stage.
Alwal had career-highs of 23 points and 18 rebounds, while Grant had career-highs of 22 points and nine rebounds in a 72-66 victory against the University of Houston in the season opener for both teams before a crowd of 1,234 at Humphrey Coliseum.
"I was talking to one of my teammates, Katia (May), and she was talking about this game that I needed to redeem myself," Grant said. "Really from the beginning of the game I took that to heart."
Grant, a 5-foot-11 sophomore guard, said she remembered her efforts in the Maroon-White scrimmage Oct. 27 in which she wasn't an offensive presence and a seven-point showing in a 55-49 victory against Shorter in an exhibition Nov. 2. Against Houston, Grant didn't wait for others to create opportunities for her. Unlike last season when she relied on her 3-point shooting, Grant attacked the basket from the wing and the baseline. As a result, she tied her career high with five made free throws and went to the line a career-high eight times.
"I talked to KG and I told her I want a train wreck when you go to the rim," Schaefer said. "I want a foul, score, or both. That's it. There is nothing else allowed. You have to go to contact. That is an SEC mind-set of being on a tough, physical, aggressive basketball team.
"I was proud of Kendra. That is probably the best she has played since we started practicing."
Alwal was equally active in the paint. The 6-4 sophomore center had 11 of her rebounds on the offensive end to help MSU hold a 65-39 rebounding edge. That advantage helped the Bulldogs -- the team no longer is using Lady Bulldogs as a nickname -- overcome 26 turnovers (17 steals by Houston).
"For the most part, I feel I was aggressive," Alwal said. "But I had a lot of balls knocked out of my hands, blocked a lot of times. I did well, but I can do better in that aspect, and be stronger and more physical."
Alwal also had career-highs in free throws made (nine), free throw attempts (10), and minutes (38). She also had four blocked shots. After starting only 15 games last season, Alwal knows she will be counted on to do more this season.
"Last year, I was defensive-minded. That was all I wanted to do. I didn't care for scoring," Alwal said "Coach is trying to get me to get more involved in offense. I am trying to work on that."
As impressive as both players were, Grant said MSU's defense stood out to her. She said the Bulldogs improved their rebounding, particularly on the offensive end, where they had 30.
Schaefer highlighted the toughness, grit, and physical nature his players delivered. He said all of the players have "probably worked harder than they have ever worked in their life" and took great satisfaction that they earned a just reward.
When Schaefer was asked if he was especially proud of Alwal and Grant for taking the lead on a young team, he said both players have made significant strides from the Maroon-White scrimmage to the exhibition against Shorter and a scrimmage against Tulane University on Sunday.
"I am extremely pleased with (Kendra) and Martha. Those two were warriors tonight," Schaefer said. "I told Kendra at halftime, 'There are no coat tail to ride here. It is your coat tail. It is Martha's coat tail.' We're going to go as far as those kids take us night in and night out. You don't need to look around the room and think, 'OK, I will blend in, or I will help them.' No. It is them. It is important those kids embrace that opportunity."
Alwal's offensive rebound and three-point play gave MSU the lead for good, 52-49, with 9 minutes, 44 seconds remaining. Houston cut the lead to one once and two on a 3-pointer by Marché Amerson (eight points) with 3:40 to go. But Darriel Gaynor (eight points, six rebounds, two steals) had a 3-pointer with 2:30 to play that extended MSU's lead to 66-60. MSU hit 6 of 10 free throws in the final 1:22 to seal the deal.
Sherise Williams added nine rebounds in 18 minutes in her first regular-season game, while Carnecia Williams had seven rebounds. Katia May had a team-high four assists.
As many positives as there were, Schaefer said his team will have to do a better job contesting shots. Houston was 5 of 26 from 3-point range and shot just 31.6 percent (25 of 79) from the field. Schaefer said MSU can't count on winning the H.O.R.S.E. game like that in the SEC, so his players need to get up tight and make opponents shoot over them and not give them open opportunities.
With that said, Alwal's and Grant's development in a short amount of time showed Schaefer he might have the foundation for a team he says will be a "work in progress."
"Martha has had a great week of practice. It was by far her best five days since I have been here," Schaefer said. "She was very upset with herself after the scrimmage against Tulane. I am really proud of that kid. She really answered the bell and worked to get better.
"Kendra, I am just going to keep leaning on her and demanding from her. She has skills. You get confidence from your skill set. She has a skill set. We just need to keep developing it, and the more she develops as a player and she feels like nobody can guard me one on one, her confidence will blossom, and people will have to start to deal with her and other people will be open."
MSU will play host to Hampton at 7 p.m. Monday.
NOTE: Former West Oktibbeha County High School standout Shamia Robinson didn't dress out and was on the sideline with a crutch under her left armpit. Schaefer said after the game that the 5-8 sophomore forward has a stress fracture and will be out four to six weeks. ... MSU's 65 rebounds were its most since it had 71 in a victory against the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff on Nov. 13, 2009. MSU also was 25 of 34 from the free-throw line, which nearly matched the 37 attempts it had against UAPB in 2009. ... Junior guard Katia May had a team-high four assists. She also had six of MSU's 26 turnovers. Houston played a big part in that statistic with 17 steals.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.