February 2, 2013 11:01:56 PM
Adam Minichino - [email protected]
The schedule hasn't been kind to the Mississippi State University women's basketball team.
Then again, Southeastern Conference members never have had a history of taking it easy on their league rivals. If anything, SEC foes work out the frustration of having to go up against the nation's best night in and night out whenever they can.
Unfortunately, MSU (9-12, 1-7 SEC) has felt the brunt of those blows all too often this season. Six of the Bulldogs' eight SEC games have been against teams picked in the top seven in the preseason poll. Four of the losses have been on the road, while four have been by 43 points or more.
MSU will try to re-gain its footing at 2 p.m. today when it plays host to the University of Arkansas at Humphrey Coliseum. WKBB-FM 100.9 and WXWX-FM 96.3 will broadcast the game.
First-year coach Vic Schaefer's team was picked 11th in the preseason poll despite having only two players -- sophomores Kendra Grant and Martha Alwal -- and only one senior -- Darriel Gaynor -- on the roster. The continued indefinite suspension to sophomore guard/forward Shamia Robinson has limited MSU's depth even more, but Schaefer, the longtime assistant/associate head coach at Arkansas and Texas A&M, knows Arkansas (15-6, 3-5) isn't going to give anything to his team.
"It is still the SEC and we're going to have to go on the road to Missouri and on the road to Auburn and on the road to South Carolina," Schaefer said. "We do have some games at home coming up, but certainly the SEC did us no favors having to play the top six in the league in the first seven, eight, or nine games. It is still the SEC, and there are still great coaches and great players."
The goal of Schaefer and his coaching staff has been to hold the Bulldogs accountable and to push them to play harder than they have in their careers. MSU responded last Sunday with its best half of basketball in a 72-57 victory against the University of Mississippi. Alwal (23 points, 12 rebounds) and Grant (20 points, six rebounds) led an offense that featured four players in double figures and that shot 72 percent (18 of 25) in the second half. MSU tried to build on that momentum Thursday, but No. 9 Tennessee built a 42-18 halftime lead en route to an 88-45 victory in Knoxville, Tenn.
"With young, inexperienced kids we're trying to maintain some sense of confidence," Schaefer said. "We continues to teach and love the kids and try to develop that as the year goes on."
MSU will face only two ranked teams (the University of South Carolina, the University of Georgia) in its last seven regular-season games. Four of those games are at home, so MSU has room to bring its record back to .500 if it can duplicate the effort it delivered in the second half. The return of freshman forward Sherise Williams, who had two points against Tennessee after missing the past five games with a stress fracture, should give Schaefer a little more depth in the post to spell Alwal and Carnecia Williams. Schaefer said Alwal and Grant still are playing too many minutes, while Williams, who fouled out against the Lady Volunteers, is logging nearly 30 minutes a game in SEC play.
The lack of depth could be one reason why MSU continues to get beat in transition. Schaefer said Tennessee beat MSU up and down the floor all night, but he said that is something he and his coaches will correct. He hopes to begin to affect change in that regard today. He hopes the home crowd will help motivate the Bulldogs.
"Typical of a young team, we've played better at home than we have on the road," Schaefer said. "I told our team that our crowd will be back wanting to see the same team that played last Sunday, so it's very important that we are able to provide that same level of energy. I look for our kids to be excited about being back home against a good Arkansas team.
"We have to keep working and getting better and keeping our eyes focused every day on the short list as I call it -- Playing hard and playing with a passion."
Senior Sarah Watkins had a career-high 28 points Thursday in a 77-66 victory against Ole Miss. Watkins has come off the bench for most of the season for the Razorbacks, who are second in the SEC in field goal defense (35.4 percent) and among the league leaders with a 1.1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.