January 7, 2013 9:44:52 AM
Adam Minichino - email@example.com
STARKVILLE -- Dawn Staley sees the similarities.
The former All-America guard earned a reputation for her gritty play at the University of Virginia. She went on to become one of women's basketball's best professionals, earning seven All-Star honors in two leagues.
Staley's mentality has carried over to the coaching ranks. First, she built Temple University into a perennial NCAA tournament contender, with six appearances in eight seasons. Now in her fifth season at the University of South Carolina, Staley is looking to push her program to the next step. Three seasons removed from a 10-win finish, South Carolina hopes to build on a 25-win campaign and a trip to the Sweet 16.
On Sunday, Staley and the Gamecocks offered a glimpse of what Mississippi State University hopes to become under Vic Schaefer. Aleighsa Welch had a game-high 18 points and a team-high seven rebounds, and No. 18 South Carolina limited MSU to 32 percent shooting from the field en route to a 60-46 victory in a Southeastern Conference game before a crowd of 1,325 at Humphrey Coliseum.
Sancheon White added 11 points, six rebounds, and three steals, and Ieasia Walker had eight points for South Carolina (13-2, 1-1), which shot only 35.9 percent (14 of 39) but went 32 of 50 from the free-throw line. The free-throw numbers were season highs and rank fourth in school history for makes and third all-time for attempts.
Statistically, the only other eye-popping statistic was the Gamecocks' 40-30 edge in rebounding, which included a 22-10 mark in the second half. Other than that, South Carolina, which had nine players score, relied on a formula that played to its aggressiveness on offense (only 12 turnovers) and its stinginess on defense. MSU's 46 points marked the 11th time this season South Carolina held an opponent to 50 points or less. The Gamecocks entered the game ranked fourth in the nation in scoring defense (47.5 points per game).
After the game, Staley credited MSU (8-7, 0-2) for making her team play "ugly" after she was asked if that was the formula her team planned to follow this season.
"I think we do a pretty decent job at defending," Staley said. "I think we are a very disciplined defensive team and then we scrap on offense. We try to find points where we can get them."
South Carolina used a mix of player-to-player and zone defenses to take away MSU's scoring inside. The strategy worked in part thanks to an amoeba-like 1-2-2 zone in which the top two players sagged and spread out in an attempt to deny wing shooters and to help on the post players.
The defense also was effective because Martha Alwal and Carnecia Williams, two of MSU's three post players, played limited minutes due to foul trouble. Alwal, a 6-foot-4 center who came in averaging 12.1 ppg., had four points, eight rebounds, and four blocked shots (four fouls) in 23 minutes, while Williams, a 6-3 forward, had zero points and four rebounds and fouled out after logging nine minutes. She entered the game averaging 9.1 ppg. and having scored in double figures in her past three games.
Sherise Williams, MSU's other true post player, also fouled out after scoring five points, grabbing six rebounds, blocking three shots, and taking two charges in 30 minutes.
"I think if you can make a team do something other than what their strengths are and they beat you, they beat you," Staley said. "But if we can take that away, it puts you in a position to win the game. I thought our post players really bought into it."
Walker, a senior point guard, said it took two seasons for the Gamecocks to "buy in" to Staley's style of play. As a sophomore, South Carolina shook off losing seasons in Staley's first two years to reach the second round of the Women's National Invitation Tournament. Last season, the Gamecocks earned their first two NCAA tournament victories since the 2002-03 season.
"She values that a lot because that is all we practiced all summer," Walker said when asked how much Staley values defensive play. "We took extra time with that to make sure everybody is ready because our defense starts our offense. We pride ourselves on defense because sometimes our shots aren't falling, but defense just takes effort. She expects us to give effort every day."
Walker is one of three seniors on an 11-player roster. With only one other upperclassman, she said it has been crucial for the older players to set the tone with intensity and effort so the younger players follow suit.
Schaefer has talked about his desire to bring those same qualities to MSU. Unfortunately, with only one senior and a roster with limited experience, he and his coaches are having to teach habits and then re-inforce behavior. Staley said she went through a similar process at South Carolina. She said winning helped her players see the philosophy would pay off, and she has solidified that mind-set by maintaining a high level of expectations for her players.
"Nowadays kids are tangible beings," Staley said. "They like to see it, they like to know they are going to benefit from working. It took some time. It really did. The first year I got to South Carolina, I do believe those players tried it, but I think we were asking them to do something they weren't really capable of. It just takes some time. The second year, we got a little bit better with it. We got some people who could actually do it, some athletes who could do it, and we found success with it.
"I think Vic has a good formula how he plays. He plays up the line and he forces you to do other things. ... Once he gets more and more players in here who can do it, and do it for 40 minutes, he is going to make some noise in this league with that defense."
Kendra Grant (15 points) and Jerica James (career-high 14) picked up the scoring slack, but MSU shot its fourth-lowest percentage of the season and committed a season-high 29 fouls.
Still, the players felt there were things to build on from a 92-41 loss to Vanderbilt University on Thursday.
"I think we made a big step," Grant said. "That is the type of loss nobody wants to endure, but I think we just took the pride we had from that game and carried it on to this game."
Said James, "It was a major step. It goes from mentality of my teammates to the hard work ethic we had. Watching the game, you could tell the difference."
Schaefer praised his team for improved level after the program's worst loss in a SEC opener. He credited Sherise Williams and James for their play, and said Williams' willingness to take two charges was another small step toward his ultimate goal. He also said MSU has plenty to learn from South Carolina.
"I think they play with the same passion and pride she has," Schaefer said. "She was a great player, one of the all-time greats, and she is a great coach. In coaching, there are lots of good teams every year, and there are lots of teams that have great players that are only good. The great teams have great coaches that get great kids to play great. ... That is one of the keys in coaching, getting kids to play great, getting good players to play great, and getting the great ones to play great."
MSU will play host to the University of Florida at 7 p.m. Thursday.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.