November 11, 2012 10:02:25 PM
STARKVILLE -- Martha Alwal has a new taste this year that she will attempt to satisfy.
If Friday is any indication, the first bite isn't going to be enough.
The 6-foot-4 sophomore center had career-highs of 23 points and 18 rebounds in the Mississippi State University women's basketball team's 72-66 victory against the University of Houston in the season opener for both teams at Humphrey Coliseum.
Not only did Alwal flash the defensive form she showed last season by blocking four shots, but she also was more active on offense, tracking loose balls in the paint and going aggressively toward the basket in an attempt to finish plays.
The performance gives first-year coach Vic Schaefer confidence that Alwal can develop into a threat this season. He hopes she and the Bulldogs will take another step forward at 7 tonight when they play host to Hampton University at Humphrey Coliseum.
But Schaefer also knows Alwal is capable of so much more than she showed last season and in the season opener Friday night.
"The only thing that can keep Martha from being good is Martha," Schaefer said. "Anything Martha is today I think she has blessed with. Her upside is tremendous. Her potential is tremendous. But unless she is willing to put in the extra time and willing to do things with a different level of intensity, that's what is going to keep Martha from being the best she can be.
"Martha is her biggest enemy. She can either understand what she has been blessed with is pretty special and now it is up to her to work with my staff and get that out of her and develop it, or she can continue (to do what she is doing). She has to do more."
Alwal started 15 games last season for MSU (14-16) and averaged 5.4 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. This season, she and sophomore guard Kendra Grant are the only returning players who logged significant minutes in 2011-12. That fact coupled with the knowledge that MSU has only two other true post players -- forwards Carnecia Williams and Sherise Williams -- in the front-court rotation places a lot of responsibility on Alwal's shoulders.
Alwal's teammates agree that she has improved greatly from last season. On Friday, Alwal echoed those sentiments, saying she intends to be more offensive-minded this season.
"I think I can get a double-double every game if I come in with the right mind-set," Alwal said. "Last year, I was just like, 'I am going to come in and get a few rebounds and if I get that I am fine.' I think if I try and come in with heart I will be fine."
Grant, who also was more aggressive in attacking the basket against Houston, complemented Alwal with career-highs of 22 points and nine rebounds. She said her teammate can become an All-Southeastern Conference player if she works hard. Last season, Alwal paced the SEC with 82 blocks (2.7 per game) and was sixth in the league in rebounding. She also led MSU last season with three double-doubles.
"If she goes into the games with the right mind-set and a positive attitude, when she is in that mind-set and you see her go hard, it is amazing," Grant said. "As long as she has that mind-set every game, she can be that go-to player we can go to any time in the game."
Schaefer and his coaching staff have worked in the preseason to get Alwal to be more assertive in establishing position and to demand the ball on the block. The Worthington, Minn., native has the length to hold her own and post players. She recognizes, though, she needs to get stronger so she can carve out even more space in the paint to make things easier.
MSU's coaches also have stressed to Alwal the importance of positioning on defense. Schaefer feels Alwal has a better understanding of what is expected of her, but that she needs to be more consistent because her presence will be critical to MSU's success this season. Alwal played 38 minutes against Houston, the most of any Bulldog.
"She likes to block shots, and she is good at it," Schaefer said. "But, at the same time, I think people will set her up for that and then, the next thing you know, she has blocked two and she has two fouls. It is real important for us that we continue to work with her to teach her to stay out of those situations by fronting that low post."
On offense, Alwal showed Friday by hitting 9 of 10 free throws that she can be a potent low-post threat. In high school, she was an honorable mention All-State player after her senior season. She averaged 15.8 points and 5.6 blocked shots per game in her prep career. Those totals helped her earn a three-star ranking from HoopGurlz, which ranked her the 16th best center in the nation. Coming off a season in which she was named to the Southeastern Conference's All-Freshman team, Alwal knows there is so much for her to improve on. The next step will be getting her to believe she can be a go-to player who is hard to stop inside.
In 2011-12, Alwal averaged only 5.7 shots per game and shot 39.8 percent from the field. She was a little better (59.5 percent) from the free-throw line.
"I just need to be more confident with myself," Alwal said. "I get down on myself very easily, and if things are not going my way I tend to give up and not really try as hard. But I feel like if I come in and am confident and believe in myself I can will be able to be that player coach wants me to be."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.