December 8, 2012 10:38:24 PM
Scott Walters - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE -- With a young team, Mississippi State University women's basketball coach Vic Schaefer knew this season would be full of teaching moments.
However, the first-year coach couldn't have imagined the moments would come at such a fast and furious pace.
The season-long trend of down-to-the-wire games continued Friday night, as MSU needed two defensive stops in the final 1 minute, 12 seconds to beat Florida Atlantic 59-58 at Humphrey Coliseum.
"This team has been through a lot already," Schaefer said. "Since we are challenged on the offensive end, we have to win games with our defense. I am so proud we persevered and did that tonight. We had lost the last two on the defensive end, so I am glad we bounced back and got one."
The Bulldogs have suffered through limited offensive production and turnover problems this season. Despite those problems, Schaefer has worked to instill physical toughness, defense, and rebounding as the building blocks to get the program back off the ground.
"It is all about defense," MSU sophomore guard Kendra Grant said. "At every timeout, the coaches are preaching defense, defense, defense. I thought we really responded. It felt good to get a win, since some of the other games have not gone our way."
MSU (4-5) played its seventh game decided by eight points or less. It already has lost two 61-59 decisions to Winthrop University and the University of Southern Mississippi. This time, 59 worked as the magic number, as FAU's Morgan Robinson missed an off-balance 22-foot 3-pointer with two seconds remaining.
After the miss, the ball went out of bounds. Martha Alwal threw it to the back of the court to run out the final 1.6 seconds.
"Martha did that on her own," Schaefer said. "We call that making a basketball play. Martha was real despondent after turning the ball over seconds before. That is what we are teaching. That is what we are working through. During the timeout, I told her, 'That's OK. Let's make another stop.' "
The Owls missed the front end of a one-and-one with 39 seconds left. After a timeout, Alwal threw away an inbounds pass, which gave FAU another chance at the potential game-winner.
"The coaches tried to keep me up," Alwal said. "We are learning how to become a better basketball team."
The Bulldogs are still early on the learning curve, as evidenced by the fact that they committed a season-high 35 turnovers Friday. Schaefer lamented "several possessions where we were one-on-one and lost possession."
MSU had a plus-17 rebounding advantage and won without taking a 3-pointer.
"We knew we had a size advantage," Schaefer said. "Our goal was to pound the ball underneath. The fact that we didn't shoot a 3 shows the growth and maturity of this team. In the second half, we did the best job we have done all season of taking the game plan, going out to the floor, and executing that plan."
Thanks to the frequent giveaways, the game was tight throughout. The score was tied five times and the lead changed hands 10 times. Neither team led by more than seven points.
The Bulldogs scored the first four points and built a 21-14 lead midway through the first half. Thanks to a phenomenal first-half by FAU's Takia Brooks, the Owls stayed near. Brooks had 16 points in the first half as the guests ended the first half on a 12-2 run to take a 36-32 lead.
"We lost the good shooters too many times," MSU freshman forward Sherise Williams said. "I think sometimes we get frustrated on offense and it carries over. We have to quit doing that. Our goal is to make the stop on every possession. We have to do a better job of forgetting one play and making the next."
The Bulldogs responded with a much better defensive effort in the final half. Again, MSU made 17 second-half turnovers. However, the Owls shot 23.1 percent from the field and the game swung for good late.
MSU grabbed its first second-half lead on a steal and layup by Katia May with 15:46 left. The teams were tied three more times before a Brooks' trey gave the Owls a 49-48 lead with 7:03 left.
The Owls (5-3) went the next three minutes without scoring, as MSU surged ahead with seven straight points. A layup by Brooks brought the Owls within one with 2:15 left, but May answered with a basket.
"If you look at the game as a whole, we did some really great things on the defensive end," Schaefer said. "Martha had seven blocked shots and Sherise added four more. We had seven steals and forced 15 turnovers. Kendra took a charge there at the end. That was the difference in the ballgame."
"If you cut (our) turnover number down to 20, this is a different game. If you make 35 turnovers, then that is 70 points you don't get a chance to score."
Williams led MSU with a career-high 15 points. Alwal posted her fourth double-double with 10 points and 13 rebounds. Grant and Carnecia Williams each also added 10 points.
Brooks led all scorers with 26 points.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter