January 11, 2013 11:59:17 AM
Adam Minichino - email@example.com
STARKVILLE -- The Mississippi State women's basketball team experienced a different degree of disappointment Thursday night.
One week after suffering its worst loss in a Southeastern Conference opener, MSU showed tangible signs it is making progress.
Unfortunately, the Bulldogs' best sustained effort for 40 minutes this season only earned them a moral victory.
Jaterra Bonds had a team-high 17 points to lead four players in double figures in the University of Florida's 61-55 victory against MSU before a crowd of 1,306 at Humphrey Coliseum.
"I am disappointed," MSU coach Vic Schaefer said. "We deserved to win today. Take nothing (away) from Florida. They found a way to win."
Kayla Lewis (12 points) and Sydney Moss and Vicky McIntyre (10 each) also scored in double figures to help Florida (13-4, 2-1 SEC) earn its seventh consecutive victory in the series.
Florida led by as many as nine in the first half before MSU clawed back from another nine-point deficit in the second half. Sophomore Kendra Grant (career-high 23 points) hit two 3-pointers in a 10-0 run that gave MSU (8-8, 0-3) its only lead of the game. One of the treys was a bail-out shot with the shot clock running down. The second was from the left wing after she started the set at the point and worked off a high screen. A hook shot by sophomore Shamia Robinson with 4 minutes, 30 seconds to play gave MSU a 52-51 advantage.
But Bonds answered after MSU switched to a matchup zone, weaving her way through the heart of the defense for a layup. She added three free throws in the final 3:35, as Florida sealed the deal from the line.
Florida coach Amanda Butler said it wouldn't have mattered what play she called for her team after it fell behind because Bonds, a junior guard, was going to take charge.
"That's the way she plays," Butler said. "I don't mean it in a selfish way at all. (She plays with a mind-set) what does my team need? I am going to provide that. This woman here is a warrior and sometimes just wills us to win."
January Miller hit 1 of 2 free throws with 57.8 seconds to go after Bonds had to leave the game to address a blood situation.
Bonds said she didn't remember if the go-ahead basket was a play called for her. She believed it was an on-ball screen she used to shake the defense.
"We had to come back and answer because they were on a little roll and the crowd kind of got back into the game," Bonds said. "I knew we had to hit them back quick, so I just made a play."
Grant drained another 3-pointer with 1:45 to go on a fourth half-court set against a 2-3 zone. The shot cut Florida's lead to 57-55, but it was the last basket MSU scored. Florida switched back to player-to-player defense and forced MSU to miss its final three shots.
Grant had a career night on 9 of 21 shooting from the field, including a season-best 4-of-7 effort from 3-point range. Her four treys matched her career high. The 21 attempts also were the most she has had in a game.
Grant, the only returning player to start all 30 games last season, has made more of an effort to take the ball to the basket after a freshman season in which she primarily was a spot-up shooter. Grant said she "changed her mind-set" prior to the game and played with the mentality she was going to shoot every time when she was open. The mentality led to her most focused and aggressive offensive showing of the season in her second consecutive 40-minute stint.
"I told her I don't want her passing up any more shots. I can care less about her being an assist player," Schaefer said. "I liked her (at the two position, shooting guard) today. I think that is her position. I think he has a chance to be a really good two guard. She has a big-time frame, she elevates, and she shoots it like a big-time player."
Martha Alwal added 17 points, 12 rebounds, and two blocked shots, but she was the only other MSU player in double figures. The Bulldogs played without senior guard Darriel Gaynor and freshman forward Sherise Williams. Gaynor missed the game with a leg injury she suffered in the second half Sunday against the University of South Carolina. Williams was on crutches nursing a stress fracture to her left foot. Schaefer said Williams will be out four to six weeks.
Gaynor's injury forced Schaefer to move Grant from the three position, or small forward, to the two.
"I just took coach's words to heart," Grant said. "Before the game in the locker room, he was talking to me and he told the bigs that if I had the ball be ready to go rebound because he wants me to shoot. ... I have been looking for my drive and I kind of stepped away from shooting, but if I am open I might as well take it, and they were falling for me tonight."
MSU also played with redshirt sophomore Carnecia Williams and guard Katia May battling sickness. Schaefer said Williams was sick to her stomach before the game, which forced Robinson, a former standout at West Oktibbeha County High School, to get her first start of her career. Williams had four points and three rebounds in 29 minutes before fouling out. Robinson had five points and five rebounds in 19 minutes.
"It's crazy not to lead with how well I thought Mississippi State played," Butler said. "They really gave us a very tough fight, which we didn't expect anything less than that. They really had players step up and rise to the occasion of SEC play, particularly Grant and Alwal, but I am just really proud of the way we held it together with a little adversity and some injuries. For us to be able to come out with a win on someone else's home court who plays as hard as State does, I think that is a great indication our team is growing in the right direction."
Florida's balanced scoring helped make up for the fact that senior forward Jennifer George, the team's leading scorer at 14.6 points per game, didn't score. George didn't start and wore a harness Thursday to protect a right shoulder injury she suffered Sunday at LSU.
MSU had a positive assist-to-turnover ratio (13-to-10) thanks in part to a career-high tying six assists by May. But it was only 6 of 7 from the free-throw line, while Florida was 25 of 39, its second most attempts of the season.
"No one is going to feel sorry for us," Schaefer said. "We had several nice stats. We had several reasons why we should have won the game. It hurts when you let the other team win the game at the foul line. We grabbed the one-point lead and we let them drive right to the basket and make a layup. It hurts because we were right there."
The Bulldogs also attempted 21 more shots, but aside from Grant and Alwal (6 of 11) they were 7 of 33 from the field. The Gators also held a 47-30 rebounding edge. The deficit was MSU's largest of the season.
"I don't want to say we played great because we didn't," Alwal said. "But we are really close to being there, to being that team. We just need to control our fouls and relax when we have the ball and not turn it over so much."
Said Grant, "It hurts. This is one of the games we definitely played our hardest. Coming from Vanderbilt (a 92-41 loss last Thursday) and South Carolina (a 60-46 loss Sunday), it is like each game we make strides and are getting closer to get the 'W.'
"Like Martha said, it wasn't our best, but it was one of our better games. It hurts knowing you did what you could and you still come up short."
MSU will play at 2 p.m. Sunday at LSU.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.