November 30, 2012 2:34:51 PM
STARKVILLE -- The message has been received loud and clear.
Each day the Mississippi State University women's basketball team gets closer to playing the game for 40 minutes like coach Vic Schaefer envisions.
Perhaps the best example to date of how the Bulldogs have embraced the philosophy of their new coach and his coaching staff came Wednesday following a 70-55 victory against Savannah State at Humphrey Coliseum.
After Schaefer talked to members of the media for more than 14 minutes, junior Katia May, redshirt sophomore Carnecia Williams, and sophomore Kendra Grant shared their thoughts about the game. Williams (career-high 26 points) was the unquestioned standout, but May (career-high six assists) and Grant (career-high 15 rebounds) played equally important roles in showcasing the qualities Schaefer and his coaches demand from the Bulldogs.
Make no mistake, words aren't needed, either. Schaefer expects his players to be mentally and physically ready to give their all for as long as they can go. When Schaefer saw early in the first half Grant and sophomore center Martha Alwal weren't performing at that level, he took them out and made them watch. He didn't yell. He didn't need to freeze his players with a stare.
"When coach Schaefer takes you out, there is a reason," May said. "If you're a player that cares about the game, you're going to respond. You have no choice but to respond because he expects a lot out of you. He just took her out of the game and she knew. She knew she needed to play. He doesn't sugarcoat anything. You already know. He is that type of coach. You get taken out of the game, you know why and you need to get it together. You're either going to respond or you're just not going to play."
Grant agreed by saying, "In a nutshell."
On the court Wednesday, Grant showed she had received the message by regrouping and playing arguably her best game as a Bulldog. Last season, she started all 30 games and finished third on the team in scoring at 7.3 points per game. This season, she is expected to be a leader on both ends who sets the tone. Schaefer's decision to remove her from the game was a challenge, and Grant, who also had 16 points, feels she tried her best to play to that level.
Following the game, Schaefer praised Grant and Williams as well as several other players for their hard work. But Schaefer offered his most telling comment in a break in the action for a free throw with a little more than four minutes left in the game when he said to Grant and the Bulldogs seated on the bench, "She is playing her guts out."
Grant, May, and Williams know MSU is going to need efforts like that every night if it is going to compete in the Southeastern Conference. They acknowledge the team is still building chemistry, but they agreed they have developed that bond. Their goal is to set the example on a consistent basis and to do their best to lift the rest of their teammates to their level.
Rebounding, playing defense, playing harder and more consistently for longer stretches, and taking better care of the basketball are just a few areas MSU hopes to improve on. Some are within the Bulldogs' grasp if they play slower and with more focus and avoid self-inflicted mistakes. Others are attainable if the Bulldogs play with the energy May delivered at the start of the second half. On Savannah State's first three possessions of the half, May was up tight defending Ezinne Kalu and helped force three turnovers. The first came when she fought through an illegal screen, the second came when she forced her player to lose the basketball, and the third came after she stayed on the ground on a shot fake that led to a blocked shot and a shot clock violation. The defense was a perfect example of how Schaefer wants MSU to attack opponents and to force them to make mistakes.
"Being the point guard he wants me to be is hard, but I am trying to get used to it," May said. "It is more than assists and playing hard. It is getting them into the right spots. Anything they do wrong, I get the blame for everything. It is keeping us straight and tough."
Even though May had a career night in assists, had a season-high three steals, and committed only two turnovers in 28 minutes, she still said she played "OK." That comment reflects how much May has bought in to Schaefer's mentality and shows she recognizes she has work to do.
That's a good thing, though, because she talked at length about how she and her teammates need to communicate better and louder to make sure everyone is on the same page. She conveyed her thinking so well that the next step will be for her to have the same voice on the court. If that happens, MSU is bound to develop more leaders and followers are fall into line even quicker with Schaefer's style of play.
"When KG is not in her right spot, even when she is playing good, it is for me to say, 'KG, move out of the way,' " May said. "There was one possession Carnecia was open but KG was in the way and I didn't say anything. ... If Carnecia isn't making lineups (I have to say), 'Carnecia, why aren't you making layups?' It is something I have to work on."
Said Grant, "Carnecia, for example, 26 points, but that took time. I feel like anybody who is trying to take on a leadership role it is going to take time. We're taking baby steps. Carnecia scoring 26 points, I am finally hitting the boards like coach wants, so it is going to be a gradual process."
Grant closed the session fittingly by saying that's the way it is going to be this season "playing for Schaefer." Playing that way every night will be the unspoken objective.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.