November 14, 2013 10:31:45 AM
Adam Minichino - email@example.com
STARKVILLE -- Jerica James didn't realize it, but her foray down the middle of the lane may have provided the spark the Mississippi State women's basketball team needed Wednesday night.
With MSU mired in a sluggish start against Jackson State's 2-3 zone defense, James stepped on the gas and split the guards who were split a little wider than usual at the foul line. The junior point guard didn't convert her drive, but Martha Alwal rebounded the miss for a putback that gave the Bulldogs a four-point lead.
On the MSU's next offensive possession, JSU switched to a player-to-player defense that James dissected and found Ketara Chapel for a jump shot that kick-started an 11-3 run and propelled the Bulldogs to an 81-42 victory in their home opener before a crowd of 1,535 at Humphrey Coliseum.
"(How we attacked their zone) wasn't really good at the beginning simply because we had to adjust to a team playing mostly zone," said James, who had seven points, five assists (two turnovers), three steals, and two rebounds in 19 minutes off the bench. "We weren't making the accurate passes. We would see the open man, but we just couldn't get the pass there."
It remains to be seen whether it was James' spin-cycle layup, in which she twirled in the lane and used her left hand to finish on the left block, Alwal's offensive rebound, or JSU's decision to change defenses that helped spark MSU (2-0). Regardless, the Bulldogs snapped out of the "hangover" coach Vic Schaefer accepted blame for after the game and responded with a 26-6 run to close the half and erase any doubt in the outcome. Inside the bigger run, MSU had a 13-3 spurt in a span of 3 minutes, 12 seconds in which it found its rhythm and broke the game open against a player-to-player defense by JSU (0-3). Five players, including four points by Savannah Carter (10 points, six rebounds, three steals), scored in that stretch, which featured better ball movement, hustle, and energy.
After the game, Kendra Grant (14 points) acknowledged plenty of opponents this season likely will turn to a zone to protect against Alwal, a 6-foot-4 center, and to force the Bulldogs' perimeter players to make outside shots. Last season, MSU was last in the Southeastern Conference in scoring (55.2 points per game) and shot 36.4 percent from the field (12th in the 14-team league).
"Some teams will (play zone) to see if we will even pull the trigger, or if we are, see how much we hit," Grant said. "If we are not hitting, they will stay in it. But I think a lot of teams will throw that at us until we make them get out of it."
James, who splits time at point guard with senior Katia May (five assists, two turnovers), said the Bulldogs felt the energy from the crowd, which was the largest for a non-conference home game since 3,042 watched MSU defeat Maryland on Nov. 22, 2009, and used it to pull away for their 28th-straight victory in a home opener. She said it is a matter of the point guards reading the defense and picking their spots. She said she and May can't try to penetrate and then have the defense collapse and cut off passing lanes or gaps.
Alwal led the team with 17 points and four blocked shots. She also had eight rebounds, which frustrated her because she says she needs to be a bigger factor. She said she has the confidence in the perimeter players to hit shots, to make good decisions, and to get the post players involved.
"We know they are going to get us the ball," Alwal said. "We work on a lot of drills in practice that have them passing to us and shooting open shots when they are open."
Sophomore Sherise Williams came off the bench to score 10 points and grab four rebounds in 13 minutes, and Chapel added 10 points, four rebounds, and three blocks. Breanna Richardson had a team-high 14 rebounds.
After shooting 41.7 percent (15 of 36) in the first half, MSU shot 50 percent (14 of 28) in the final 20 minutes. Although it had 22 turnovers to 17 assists, MSU had 13 steals and forced 29 turnovers, including four in a row and nine in the stretch in which it built a 39-19 halftime cushion.
"The first 10 minutes we were not a good basketball team," Schaefer said. "We put so much emphasis on winning the first game at Houston and it had a hangover effect on this game. You could tell we were flat the last couple of days in practice. After the first 10 minutes of this game, we played very well."
MSU will play host to New Orleans at 3 p.m. Sunday. Fans are invited to bring their children pregame to Bully's Kidz Kourt, which offers inflatables and games in Mize Pavilion starting at 2 p.m.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.