December 18, 2013 9:29:36 AM
FARGO, N.D. -- A dominating defensive performance in the second half lifted the Mississippi State women's basketball team to its fourth victory away from home Tuesday night.
Traveling for the first time to North Dakota, MSU pulled away in the second half to post a 72-62 victory against North Dakota State at Bison Sports Arena.
The game was a homecoming of sorts for junior center Martha Alwal. Playing five hours from her home in Worthington, Minn., Alwal matched a career-high with 25 points and set a season-high with 15 rebounds. It was her third double-double of the season (22nd career) for the Southeastern Conference's Player o the Week.
"What a special night for Martha," MSU coach Vic Schaefer said. "She was a five-hour bus ride from home. Her friends and family really made for a great environment for our kids. I am glad Martha knew when the bus left and when the plane left, because in the second half, she really put us on her back and carried the team."
With the win, MSU improved to 11-1. The Bulldogs can match last season's 13-win total by closing the non-conference slate with victories against Southeastern Louisiana and Mississippi Valley State.
MSU is off to its best start in a season since the 2008-09 squad also started 11-1. MSU previously won at Houston and twice in the Gulf Coast Showcase in Naples, Fla.
A strong first half by Brooke LeMar kept the Bison in the game in the first half.
The Bulldogs quickly built an 8-2 lead only to see the Bison score the game's next eight points to take a 10-8 advantage.
The Bulldogs would claim a couple of small leads before taking a four-point advantage at 26-22 on two free throws by Alwal with 4 minutes, 19 seconds left in the half.
From there, MSU held some type of lead the rest of the half, including a 32-31 lead at halftime.
"This was so exciting," Alwal said. "It was my first time to play in front of this many people from back home. My first half was slow and sluggish, so I really wanted to come out and play hard in the second half. That is what allowed me to get the numbers that I got."
Alwal led the charge in the second half as the Bulldogs pulled away. A layup by Breanna Richardson ran the MSU lead to 43-34 with 16:21 to go.
MSU took its first double-digit lead, 50-39, after two Kendra Grant free throws with 11:51 remaining.
In the second half, the Bulldogs changed their defensive game play and applied more pressure to wear down the Bison.
North Dakota State shot 32.4 percent from the field in the final half.
The Bulldogs held a double-digit lead for almost all of the final 11:51, as the Bison got no closer than eight in the closing seconds.
"I am proud of our resilience and toughness," Schaefer said. "We didn't play great, but we played well enough to win in one of the 10 toughest places to play in the nation. It is a sign you are an improving team when you don't play your best and you still find a way to win on the road in an environment like this."
MSU hit 24 of 70 shots from the field (34.3 percent) and was 0 of 7 from 3-point range and 24 of 34 from the free throw line (70.6). North Dakota State hit 23 of 60 shots from the field (38.3) and was 4 of 17 from 3-point range (23.5) and 12 of 15 from the free throw line (80).
MSU held a 56-34 rebounding advantage. It was MSU's largest rebounding advantage this season. The Bulldogs had 11 assists and 10 turnovers, while the Bison had eight assists and 11 turnovers.
Grant finished with 14 points, while Katia May had 10 points and six assists.
NDSU (3-8) received 21 points from LeMar, 17 points from Marena Whittle and 10 points from Kahla Becken.
MSU will play host to Southeastern Louisiana at 7 p.m. Friday at Humphrey Coliseum.