January 6, 2014 12:22:19 PM
Adam Minichino - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE -- On paper, Katia May is listed as a senior.
In Vic Schaefer years, though, the Mississippi State point guard is only in her second season. When it comes to grasping all of the lessons of "Secretary of Defense" and playing up to that standard and the one set by assistant coach Aqua Franklin, a former point guard, learning can be difficult, especially in the Southeastern Conference.
The Auburn women's basketball makes 40 minutes challenging on any guard. With a combination of size, quickness, length, and athleticism, the Tigers showed Sunday they are learning how to use those qualities in a variety of zone pressures to give opposing point guards nightmares. The difference could be a tweak Auburn coach Terri Flournoy-Williams made to her team's signature pressure that helped it deliver game-changing results.
Auburn forced seven turnovers (all steals) in a 12-0 run early in the second half and then held on for an 82-74 victory against MSU in a Southeastern Conference game at Humphrey Coliseum.
Tyrese Tanner had a game-high 24 points to lead five players in double figures for Auburn (10-4, 1-0 SEC). Brandy Montgomery added 13 points, while Tra'Cee Tanner, Hasina Muhammad, and Peyton Davis each had 10. Tra'Cee Tanner had five of the steals in the run that gave Auburn a 51-42 lead with 13 minutes, 22 seconds remaining.
In all, Auburn had 15 steals, which was one off its season-high against Ball State and Florida A&M. The Tigers, who had 25 turnovers, also forced the Bulldogs into a season-high 26 turnovers, which was four more than their previous high. It was the first time this season MSU has had more turnovers than its opponent.
"That's a great defensive night," Williams-Flournoy said. "That's exactly what we want to do."
Unfortunately, Auburn's lesson learned Sunday translated into another teaching moment for MSU coach Vic Schaefer and his players. Schaefer said he and his coaches knew the Tigers would try to disrupt the Bulldogs with full-court pressure. MSU handled that defense aside from two key stretches -- the final four-plus minutes of the first half, when Auburn cut a 13-point deficit to 36-33 at halftime, and the first six to seven minutes of the second half.
Auburn's 1-2-2 and 2-1-2 defenses took charge in the second half, thanks to the length of Tyrese Tanner, a 6-foot-1 senior, Hasina Muhammad, a 6-1 junior, and the aggressiveness of Tra'Cee Tanner, a 6-3 sophomore. The Tigers used their length and quickness to step into passing lanes and to cut down angles in the run. The result created an up-and-down game that allowed Auburn to score easily in transition and to rattle MSU.
"We switched and put Tyrese Tanner back at the top," Williams-Flournoy said. "We had moved her to the back line, but Tyrese is so good at the top. Our defensive pressure increased when we moved her back to the top."
For May, who is 5-2, working against the defenses was a chore. She came off the bench to replace backcourt teammate Jerica James at the 14-minute, 30-second mark after the Tigers had made four steals and had just started their run. May was back on the bench 1:27 later after Auburn made three more steals that led to six more points and caused Schaefer to call two timeouts.
"In the second half, I don't even know what happened," May said. "They were real fast and they were real long."
Auburn's length made it challenging for May to dribble through the press or to get the ball to the wings. The Tigers also tried to direct May into areas of the floor to shut her down. Their length made them look like wide receivers snaring passes in open space, as Tra'Cee Tanner had two steals and Muhammad had another before May picked up her third foul and left the game.
"We were real passive against the press," Schaefer said. "We had radar vision instead of looking off a pass. We just caught it and held it and let them come trap us. We caught it in the wrong spots on the floor where we know better to be and where we weren't in the first half. It was like two different teams came out of the locker room in the first half and in the second half.
"(May) had a horrible first five minutes (of the second half). She came out sat down regrouped. When she came back in the game she was a different kid, and we were a different team."
By the time May returned with 8:18 to go, Auburn led 61-49 and MSU (13-3, 0-2) needed a spark. May's goal in fighting the pressure was to get the defenders to go one way and to get the ball into the middle. Once Auburn adjusted, May changed her strategy and swung the basketball to the Bulldogs' four player to keep it away from a trap. When she received the ball on the reverse, May said she attacked the pressure and was able to find Martha Alwal or Kendra Grant or Dominique Dillingham to help MSU re-establish its rhythm.
"I was basically just trying stuff," May said. "Now it is just time to learn from it in practice and move forward."
May's chance to watch and to listen to her coaches rallied the Bulldogs. MSU cut the deficit to 63-61 on a layup by Alwal (team-high 18 points) off an assist from May with 4:54 to play. MSU couldn't capitalize on a turnover by Auburn and committed one of its own before Montgomery hit a 3-pointer to kick the lead back to 66-61. Grant (14 points) hit a jumper off an assist from May on the ensuing possession, but MSU couldn't get any closer than three points the rest of the way.
While it was disappointing to lose the SEC home opener following a league-opening loss to Florida on Thursday, Schaefer was pleased with several aspects.
"Other than the last three minutes of the first half and the first five minutes of the second half I thought we were very competitive and played awfully well," MSU coach Vic Schaefer said. "They outscored us 11-3 to end of the first half, and obviously we came out of the locker room and we weren't ready to play the first five minutes of the second half, and that is where the game was lost. I thought I saw our kids grow up a little bit today. I can't impress upon you enough and our kids enough to know that playing hard is good. Playing hard and smart is better. Playing hard, smart, and together is even better. You have to play hard, play smart, and play together. Playing hard is not enough. Playing hard and smart usually ain't going to going to get it. You have to do all three."
Dillingham had another strong game as one of five Bulldogs in double figures. The freshman guard/forward had 10 points, five rebounds, and three steals. She also was the only MSU player (three assists, zero turnovers) with a positive assist-to-turnover ratio. Breanna Richardson matched her career-high with 14 points.
"Their defense was definitely suffocating," Dillingham said. "They take up every inch of the floor, so you just have to be smart about everything. Their defense is to frustrate us, so when that happens we just have to stay together and stay poised. We definitely bounced back from it and learned from the mistakes that we were making. We just couldn't finish it."
One of those moments came after a steal by Dillingham with MSU trailing 63-61. The Bulldogs weren't able to capitalize, though, as Dillingham's pass to May on the baseline in the left corner went through her hands for a turnover.
"It just slipped out of my hand," May said. "It was a good pass, though."
Still, Schaefer praised the play of May, who had 10 points, six assists (six turnovers), and two steals in 29 minutes. He showed his appreciation by hugging her and offering her encouragement after she fouled out with 59 seconds to go. He hopes the Bulldogs can take the lessons they fought through Sunday and work on them in practice to produce results as soon as possible. MSU has a bye Thursday, and will return to action Sunday when it takes on Arkansas in Fayetteville, Ark.
"I told her how proud I was of her that she was rattled, sat down, got re-composed, and came out and was a completely different kid," Schaefer said. "When a kid can be that rattled and play poorly and come out and then re-compose herself and come back in play like that, it is a great sign. I am really proud of her for that and I wanted her to know."
For May, the rest of the season will be an opportunity for her to show Schaefer how much she has matured. Last season, she had 95 assists and 126 turnovers in the first extended minutes of her career at MSU. She entered the game against Auburn with 87 assists and 35 turnovers (sixth in the SEC at 5.8 assists per game). She left the matchup with a season-high in turnovers and her fourth outing of the season in which she failed to register a positive assist-to-turnover ratio.
Schaefer said it is difficult for any point guard because they typically get all of the blame when a team doesn't play well, but he hopes May can apply the lessons she learned and become the leader he and the Bulldogs need.
"It is OK to make mistakes if you are going to learn from them, grow from them, and fix them," Schaefer said. "That is the challenge we have with our team.
"We have all watched her play for me for going on two years and we have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. I need more of the good. I don't need anymore bad and ugly. She is a senior, and I am hoping she grew up a little bit."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.