March 19, 2014 11:01:36 PM
Adam Minichino - email@example.com
STARKVILLE -- Katia May pursed her lips as if to let out a whistle.
The mere mention of two preseason meetings against Tulane in the past two seasons caused the Mississippi State women's basketball senior guard to shake her head in an effort to erase a bad memory.
Even though MSU's two losses to Tulane in closed-door scrimmages weren't seen by the public and didn't count against the team's record, they left an impression on May and the Bulldogs that they would like to forget.
MSU (19-13) will try to create a more positive memory at 7 tonight when it plays host to Tulane (20-10) in the opening round of the Women's National Invitation Tournament at Humphrey Coliseum. WKBB-FM 100.9 and WXWX-FM 96.3 will broadcast the game live. Live video and audio also will be available at www.HailState.com/HSTVLive.
"It is exciting," May said. "You can't deny that. It has been a lot of years (since the program has been in the postseason). It is our first time, so it is real exciting. Of course it is an opportunity because we get Mississippi State back on the map."
The winner of tonight's game will play the winner of the game between Lamar and Southern Mississippi at a time, place, and date to be determined.
The game will be MSU's first since a 71-67 loss to Florida in the second round of the Southeastern Conference tournament on March 6 in Duluth, Ga. The Bulldogs had five days off following the loss to regroup and to enjoy a little bit of Spring Break. But MSU coach Vic Schaefer said his program isn't going to make plans to take vacations at this time in the future. Instead, Schaefer intends for MSU, which is making its first postseason appearance since the 2009-10 season, to be a regular in the NCAA tournament and the WNIT. Back in the postseason for the first time since the program's first trip to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, Schaefer views the WNIT as an opportunity for the Bulldogs to win 20 games, to earn additional practice and game time, and to build momentum for next season.
The players also see this as a chance to make this season even more memorable. MSU improved by six wins from a 13-17 finish in Schaefer's first season as head coach with the program last season. Three overtime losses and six other losses by 10 points or less in the SEC left the Bulldogs with the feeling they could have accomplished more and could have earned a bid to the NCAA tournament.
"We can't just be satisfied that we made it to postseason," said MSU junior center Martha Alwal, a first-team All-SEC performer. "We have to go into the tournament and make a big run."
Tulane presents a tough challenge in the opening round. The Green Wave finished fourth in Conference USA with an 11-5 record. Florida International upset Tulane 69-55 in the quarterfinals of the C-USA tournament. Tulane has advanced to the postseason the past five seasons, including trips to the WNIT the past four years.
Schaefer said his team will have to be prepared to face a well-coached and experienced squad. He knows the Green Wave will be a different team than the one the Bulldogs played the past two Octobers, but he also knows his team is very different, too.
May knows MSU has matured since its first meeting against Tulane and from the one last year.
"I just know I am ready to play," May said. "We didn't play well as a team. We are a much better team now. There is no comparison. That is all you can say. I am ready to play."
Said junior guard Kendra Grant, "When we played them at the beginning of this year, we were all trying to get used to each other with the freshmen coming in, so that was our first chance to play against someone else. We have played 30-something games and we are a completely different team, and I am sure they are, too. We are just going to go into it hungry and, hopefully, come out with a win."
If that happens, MSU can delay talking and thinking about a future that includes the addition of a top-20 recruiting class that includes Scott Central High School standout Victoria Vivians, the state's all-time leading scorer, and a trip to Europe in August. All of the newcomers, including redshirt freshman center Chinwe Okorie, will be eligible for the trip, which will feature four to five games against European club teams. The Bulldogs will have an opportunity to hold 10 practices to help build team chemistry in anticipation of a wonderful experience and a season that should be filled with even more expectations.
First, though, Schaefer and the Bulldogs have business they need to tend to this season.
"None of the players have been on a team that has been in the postseason," Schaefer said. "It should be a little bit of a settling experience in that we're at home. The reward part (is that) they can come back here from now until when they die and there is going to be a banner hanging in the Hump that has their year on it. In the future, we want that to say the NCAA tournament, but, for right now, it is a great step for this team knowing where we were at this time last year and where those kids were two years ago, whether they played a lot or didn't play at all.
"They all have become important players and impacted our team and our program in many ways. From that standpoint, it has to be rewarding for them."
MSU last played in the WNIT in 2008 when it lost to Southern Miss 62-61 in Hattiesburg. It last played host to a game in the WNIT in 2007 when it beat Tulane 79-73. This is MSU's seventh overall appearance in the WNIT. The Bulldogs are 4-7 in the WNIT.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.