November 18, 2012 12:33:09 AM
Scott Walters - email@example.com
STARKVILE -- Trailing by 10 points at halftime, Mississippi State University women's basketball coach Vic Schaefer urged his team to become tougher.
In the second half, the youthful Bulldogs did just that.
A rejuvenated defensive effort and just enough offense allowed MSU to rally past Louisiana Tech 57-55 Friday night at Humphrey Coliseum.
"In the second half, we really out-toughed them," Schaefer said. "I am really proud of the kids for taking our message to heart. We physically grew up as a team tonight. When we became the tougher team, it allowed us to go inside more and make more things happen."
Since taking over the MSU program in the spring, Schaefer has preached toughness. Most first-year coaches are more worried about mental toughness. However, for the Bulldogs, it is a case of physical toughness. Even though the Bulldogs may lack depth, Schaefer wants a club ready to play brutally physical basketball on both ends of the floor.
"Toughness. It is a word we here all the time," MSU sophomore Kendra Grant said. "Coach was not pleased with our toughness in our last game. We really had to do a better job of that if we wanted to win this game."
Schaefer was displeased with his team's showing Monday night in a 56-48 loss to Hampton University. In the postgame, Schaefer lamented his team's lack of toughness and said Hampton took it to his squad from a physical standpoint.
"This game was a 180-degree turn-around," Schaefer said. "It's simple. We are not going to score a lot of points most nights. That is where we are. We have to outhustle, outwork the opponent. You saw when we do that. It allows us to get better offensive shots. We took the ball inside more and either scored the basket or drew the foul. There is a sign of growth and maturity in what we are trying to do."
The growth and maturity took place in slow steps early. The Bulldogs (2-1) struggled to get open shots and only led twice. Louisiana Tech (0-3) shot 50 percent from the field in the opening half and led 33-23 at the intermission.
"We knew some things had to change because we were getting beat on too many easy baskets," MSU senior Darriel Gaynor said. "Our motto is stop, score, stop. We were able to put some stops together. Once we did that, it got the whole team going."
In the second half, Grant assumed the leadership role Schaefer hopes his rising sophomore will embrace. Grant had 14 of her team-high 20 points in the final half.
"We told Kendra we were going to ride her until the end," Schaefer said. "She didn't take the final shot there at the end. We are hoping she will be more comfortable doing that in the future. She is the type of player who can carry a team. As coaches, it is our job to motivate her to do just that."
Down by as many as 12, Grant helped the Bulldogs cut the deficit to 42-37 with 12 minutes, 23 seconds left in regulation. The Lady Techsters pushed the lead back to six twice more before the Bulldogs mounted their final push.
A steal by Grant led to a layup by Martha Alwal. After two free throws by Carnecia Williams, a basket by Grant tied the game at 46. Grant was completed the old-fashioned 3-point play, but the crowd was energized, as the home team was back in it.
"We got some offensive rebounds and some better shots in the second half," Gaynor said. "We had to get to the free-throw line if we were going to win."
Grant capped the 8-0 run and gave the Bulldogs a 48-46 advantage. Still, it appeared the Bulldogs might be fatigued as they exerted a great deal of effort to erase the big deficit.
"We challenged them to get to the finish line," Schaefer said.
Louisiana Tech had two more leads before one of two free throws by Williams tied the contest at 53. The Bulldogs got to the tie on a splendid defensive possession, which included three blocked shots.
This time, Alwal was in possession to complete an old-fashioned 3-point play. Even though the free throw rimmed out, Schaefer called Alwal's drive to the goal "the biggest basket of the game."
After Louisiana Tech forced one last tie on the final of Brittany Lewis' 20 points, Gaynor scored the game-winner on a baseline jumper with 52 seconds left.
Gaynor finished with 11 points, while Alwal added six points, six rebounds, and five blocked shots. MSU forced 23 turnovers.
"I thought the kids fought their hearts out and refused to lose," Schaefer said. "I'm proud of their toughness and willingness to compete. They have practiced hard to get to this point. On this night, some good things happened for the Bulldogs."
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter