March 21, 2014 11:55:07 AM
Adam Minichino - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE -- Throwing the first punch isn't easy, but you can catch an opponent off guard if you come out with an attacking mind-set.
Landing a second punch can be just as simple, especially if it comes immediately after the first and follows with equal authority.
The Mississippi State women's basketball team has learned this season how to throw haymakers at the beginning of the game and to set the tone. On Thursday night, MSU showed it also can answer a flurry of punches and respond like a champion.
Martha Alwal and Savannah Carter scored in a key 10-0 run that helped MSU re-establish a double-digit lead and propelled it to a 77-68 victory against Tulane in the first round of the Women's National Invitation Tournament before a crowd of 1,059 at Humphrey Coliseum.
The victory pushes MSU (20-13) into a second-round matchup against Southern Miss, which defeated Lamar 75-60 on Thursday night, at 7 p.m. Monday at Humphrey Coliseum. MSU beat Southern Miss 71-61 on Dec. 14, 2013.
Against Tulane, Alwal and Carter paced MSU with 15 points, while Breanna Richardson added 13, Dominique Dillingham had 11, and Kendra Grant chipped in with 10 in one of the team's most balanced performances of the season. All nine Bulldogs who played scored.
The victory was MSU's first in the postseason since the 2009-10 season, when it beat Middle Tennessee State and Ohio State to reach the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history. Three consecutive losing seasons followed -- along with the retirement of longtime coach Sharon Fanning-Otis. Vic Schaefer guided MSU to a 13-17 finish last season in his first year as head coach, but a nationally ranked recruiting class led by freshmen Ketara Chapel, Dillingham, and Richardson and Carter, a junior college transfer, has helped put the Bulldogs back on track.
"I am awfully proud of our team," Schaefer said. "We talked about talked about throwing the first punch which is what I thought we did in the first half, and that is kind of where the game stayed after we punched them the first couple of times."
Leading 41-33 at halftime, MSU missed two of its first three shots and committed four turnovers in the opening four-plus minutes. Tulane capitalized with an 8-2 run to cut the deficit to 43-41 on a layup by Danielle Blagg with 15:51 left. But just as quickly as things appeared to be slipping away, MSU righted the ship. Senior point guard Katia May completed a crisp offensive possession with a pass from the left wing inside to Alwal, who hit a layup that sparked a 10-0 run. Carter added a mid-range jump shot off a push in transition, Alwal hit two free throws, Richardson converted a three-point play off an offensive rebound, and Dillingham tacked on a free throw to give the Bulldogs a cushion they held for most of the rest of the game.
"You knew they were going to make a run to start the second half," Schaefer said. "I was disappointed how we came out of the locker room (to start the second half), but I also was excited how we answered (their run). I didn't think about calling timeout when they got it to two. I just felt like our kids have been that way all year. They are resilient, they know what they need to do, and I thought they answered the bell like a champ."
Alwal said Schaefer challenged them before the game to throw the first and second punches. They did that by attacking the offensive boards with abandon, but Alwal said the Bulldogs' problem is they get "content" after throwing the first few punches. She said MSU needs to learn how to put teams away when it has the opportunity.
Still, MSU played with plenty of composure and limited its turnovers (13 to 13 assists) on an evening in which it shot only 40.3 percent (25 of 62) from the field. It made up for that by going 22 of 28 (78.6 percent) from the free throw line.
"We have done it all year," Alwal said. "That is what we do, we always make leads and then other teams come back and we go back again. I have confidence in us that we are not going to lay down."
Jamie Kaplan led Tulane (20-11) with 17 points and five assists. She was the only Green Wave player in double figures. Tulane played without freshman point guard Leslie Vorpahl (ankle) for all but three minutes of the second half. It also lost Blagg (eight points), the team's leading scorer, to an apparent leg injury with 4:47 to go and trailing 62-51. The Green Wave cut the deficit to 66-59 on an offensive rebound putback with Adesuwa Ebomwonyi with 2:48 to play, but a turnover prevented them from cutting deeper into the lead. Grant's 3-pointer off an assist from Jerica James with 1:55 remaining kicked the lead back to 69-59 and essentially sealed the deal.
"I thought Mississippi State did a tremendous job in that first 10 minutes (with) their rebounding and all the extra possessions," Tulane coach Lisa Stockton said. "They really took control in the first 10 minutes. I am really proud our team was able to battle back and get back in it."
Tulane shot 39.4 percent (26 of 66) for the game and only 34.2 percent (13 of 38) in the second half. The Green Wave missed at least five layups and more than 10 shots in the paint in the final 20 minutes. Even though Tulane outscored MSU 30-26 in the paint, the Bulldogs had one more offensive rebound (18-17) and had an 18-10 edge in second-chance points.
"We had our chances," Stockton said. "We had some layups we didn't make and we got some steals and didn't convert them. We got some stops and had our chances and didn't make it happen."
On the other side, MSU made the most of its chance to get its first victory in the WNIT since 2007, a 79-73 victory against Tulane. It also helped the Bulldogs notch their fifth 20-win season in program history.
Richardson, who had eight offensive rebounds and a team-high 10 to go with three assists and three steals, said the Bulldogs responded to Schaefer and didn't stand behind defenders and stayed aggressive.
Dillingham also started the game "free and easy," hitting 3 of 6 from the field, including 2 of 4 from 3-point range. She also grabbed six rebounds.
"I think it was great to play in front of the fans. They were great tonight, and it was great to play in front of them and to get the 20th win," Dillingham said. "It feels good. It feels like a springboard for our future."
NOTE: Alwal's five blocked shots are a school record in the WNIT. The first-team All-Southeastern Conference performer has 248 for her career, which is one shy of 10th all-time in the SEC.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.