March 1, 2013 8:33:45 AM
Adam Minichino - [email protected]
"I want kids to play hard. I am not real good with ones that don't, and I think that's the challenge I always have in coaching is teaching these kids they can go to a level they never knew they had."
-- Vic Schaefer on March 13, 2012, when he was announced as the new
women's basketball coach at Mississippi State University.
By Adam Minichino
STARKVILLE -- The Mississippi State University women's basketball team has brought the "Secretary of Defense" to the verge of tears on several occasions this
None of those efforts compared to the one MSU delivered Thursday night. The result brought a "whew" to Vic Schaefer's lips as he savored his first signature victory.
"To see these kids go through what they have gone through this year, to know how committed they have been all year long, my staff just continuing to work and grind and get better, and seeing the Good Lord reward them for their hard work and their dedication and for being good Bulldogs," Schaefer said, "it is why we coach. It is why we do what we do. I am so proud of my kids for their effort against a great team, a great coach."
Schaefer couldn't help it if his emotions came to the surface as he talked about MSU's 50-38 victory against No. 11 University of Georgia before a Senior Night crowd of 1,350 at Humphrey Coliseum.
The victory was MSU's first against a ranked team since an 87-67 victory against No. 8 Ohio State University on March 23, 2010, in the second round of the NCAA tournament in Pittsburgh, Pa. While that team was a senior-laden group hitting its stride, this year's MSU squad has had only one senior -- Darriel Gaynor -- to rely on and two sophomores -- Martha Alwal and Kendra Grant -- as its leading scorers. The Bulldogs also have had to adjust to Schaefer's style of hard-nosed defense that aims to make it incredibly difficult for opponents to score. And while MSU has shown flashes it is moving toward that mind-set, its delivered a stalwart performance that held Georgia (23-5, 11-4 Southeastern Conference) to a season-low 18.2 percent shooting (10 of 55) from the field and to its lowest point total in the 39 series meetings. The shooting percentage also is the lowest in recent memory, dating back through at least the 2004-05 season. Complete records for subsequent seasons weren't immediately available at press time.
"You have no idea how hard it is to hold a team to five baskets. I don't care who it is," Schaefer said. "But No. 11 in the nation got five baskets in each half. Five. That's unbelievable. You have to play your absolute heart and guts out to do that. I am so proud and pleased for my kids. What a great effort. If you didn't see the flame of the Lord in how they played tonight you weren't looking. They just played so hard, with so much passion, and with such a purpose."
The victory helped MSU (13-15, 5-10), which won four SEC games last season and was picked 11th in the preseason poll, move up to ninth thanks to a victory by the University of Missouri against No. 14 University of South Carolina and the University of Florida's victory against the University of Arkansas. MSU holds the tiebreaker against Arkansas and Missouri. It will close the regular season at 2 p.m. Sunday at Auburn University. A victory would wrap up the No. 9 seed and secure a game against the No. 8 seed at 11 a.m. Thursday in the fist round of the SEC tournament at The Arena at Gwinnett Center in Duluth, Ga.
Grant (13 points) paced three MSU players in double figures. She hit 8 of 10 free throws in the final 2 minutes, 2 seconds to help clinch the victory. The Bulldogs were 12 of 14 from the free-throw line in the last three minutes. Alwal (12 points, 14 rebounds, four blocked shots) had her SEC-leading 15th double-double of the season, and Gaynor, playing in her final home game at MSU, added 11 points, including three 3-pointers and four steals in her second-consecutive 40-minute effort.
"Mississippi State outplayed us," Georgia coach Andy Landers said. "They played harder and with more intent. They knocked us on our heels in the first two or three minutes of the game, and we were very poor about recovering. We played conservatively and passively from the onset. They were the aggressive team. We fought our way back, but we shot ourselves in the foot. Our decision making was awful in transition, and that kept us from ever seriously being in a position to win the game. We weren't running the break, we were hurting the break. We made bad decisions with possessions and gave up any chance to win back momentum."
MSU, which fell behind 12-0 Sunday and went on to a 58-43 loss at South Carolina, sprinted to a 10- lead Thursday behind 3-pointers by Gaynor and Grant. The lead ballooned to as big as 15 points on two occasions before Georgia found its footing and crept back into the game. But Georgia shot 5 of 23 in the first half, committed nine of its 16 turnovers in the first 20 minutes, and never took a lead despite closing the half on a 13-0 run. MSU missed its final 12 shots of the half and committed two turnovers.
Leading 24-22 at halftime, MSU looked like it was going to pull away at least twice following a 3-pointer by Jerica James (eight points, three assists, three rebounds in 30 minutes) and after a jump shot by Alwal off a pass from Carnecia Williams off a low-high set. Each time, though, Georgia climbed back into the game. This time, it cut the deficit to 35-33 on a layup by Jasmine James with 6:26 to play. The basket was one of two fast-break opportunities Georgia had in the game.
From there, MSU and Georgia went back and forth denying each other good looks at the basket. Katia May picked up her fourth foul at the 5:08 mark and was replaced by James. Following a missed 3-pointer by Gaynor, James hit the game's biggest shot when she took a pass from Gaynor and drilled a 3-pointer to kick the lead to 38-33 with 3:47 to play.
"We knew they were going to come out with more intensity," said James, who was making her first start since Jan. 13, 2012, against LSU. "When it came to the point when we couldn't score and they couldn't score, we knew we had to do something differently, and it was our defense. It has been our defense all season, if you ask me. Once our defense made the stops, our offense eventually came around. That is how we began another run."
Before the game, MSU honored Gaynor and its senior managers with a video presentation. Alwal was noticeably emotional in front of the MSU bench as she watched the video. Instead of allowing the emotion to get the better of her, she and her teammates came out inspired and delivered an intense beginning to what proved to be their most satisfying chapter.
After the game, Gaynor praised her teammates for their performance and regaled in the program's biggest achievement in the past three seasons.
"It means everything to me. This year alone has been record-breaking," Gaynor said. "Since I've been here, we've never beaten Arkansas, never beaten Missouri and never won on senior night. I'm so happy and so proud of my team. They did this for me. The whole time they kept telling me to keep shooting and kept encouraging me. This is my No. 1 memory from Mississippi State."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.