December 17, 2012 5:55:08 AM
STARKVILLE -- A year ago, Kendra Grant would have gravitated to the 3-point arc and her toes would have pawed for a comfortable spot.
A month ago, Darriel Gaynor talked about the player she used to be and how she was focused on regaining her confidence.
Two weeks ago, Sherise Williams finally had a new pair of contact lenses and was prepared to find a way to slow down.
On Sunday, Grant, Gaynor, and Williams showed they are making progress in their efforts to re-define who they are as basketball players. The combined effects helped the Mississippi State University women's basketball team get back to .500.
Williams scored a career-high 21 points, while Grant and Gaynor had key contributions in the final five minutes to help MSU rally for a 67-57 victory against Florida A&M before a crowd of 1,239 at Humphrey Coliseum.
Grant had 12 points and six rebounds in a team-high 37 minutes, while Gaynor had all nine of her points in the second half to help push MSU to 5-5. Gaynor also had four assists, three steals, and three rebounds in 20 minutes off the bench.
Last season, Grant, a 5-foot-11 guard from Richland, was third on the team in scoring (7.3 points per game) as a freshman. More than 58 percent of the shots she attempted (143 of 245) were from 3-point range, and while she led the Bulldogs with 41 treys, she shot only 30.2 percent from the field.
This season, Grant has embraced a mid-range game and has been willing to attack the basket off the dribble. With MSU clinging to a 59-55 lead, Grant emerged to provide one of the Bulldogs' biggest plays of the day. MSU failed to get the ball inside on its first look in the half-court set. The Bulldogs then reversed the ball to the left wing to Grant, who drove past a defender, avoided contact with the help-side defender, and scored to extend the lead to 61-55 with 2 minutes, 4 seconds to play.
"Compared to last year, I was just a shooter," said Grant, who has attempted only 12 3-pointers in 133 shots this season. "A lot of people knew that, and I didn't really put it on the floor and drive like that. Coach really brought that to my attention at the beginning of the year. He was like, 'Drive it. Either you get a foul, score, or both.' When I am driving, that's what I have in mind."
Grant credits assistant coach Aqua Franklin for working with her on how to read defenses and how to stay in control as she makes an aggressive play off the dribble. Grant had nine turnovers against Florida Atlantic, including several on offensive fouls.
Grant didn't stop with her layup down the stretch. She had a deflection in Florida A&M's half-court set that forced the Rattlers to re-set the offense. After she was stripped of the ball near midcourt and gave up a layup with 1:04 to go, Grant responded with another drive for a layup that helped put the game away.
MSU coach Vic Schaefer chastised himself for playing Grant too much. Grant leads the team in scoring (13.9 ppg.) and minutes (34.8 per game). Still, he said she remained tough and was a factor on both ends.
"I think she is a competitor," Schaefer said. "She knows when she makes a mistake. She feels bad about it. She cares. She is special. She has a chance to be really good."
Gaynor, a 5-6 senior forward, rebounded from a scoreless first half and shook off misses on 3-pointers from the right corner and left wing that could have given MSU the lead. Gaynor acknowledged misses like those might have affected her confidence last season, but she said she knows she has to keep shooting and to do other things -- like play defense and distribute the basketball -- to help the team.
"Coach has been trying to challenge me," Gaynor said. "I didn't play a lot in the Florida Atlantic game. The Southern Miss game I didn't have a good game. I didn't rebound like I was supposed to and I didn't do my job as a senior leader. I think he was trying to get my attention to be able to play harder and to make sure I rebounded."
After Katia May (six points, five assists) tied the game at 55-55 with a drive with 4 minutes, 56 seconds to play, Gaynor had a steal. She then hit two free throws (part of a 7-for-7 effort from the free-throw line) three seconds later to give MSU the lead for good.
Gaynor said she "doesn't have a choice" but to continue to shoot because she is someone the team is counting on to be a perimeter threat.
Williams, a 6-1 freshman forward, was coming off a career-high 15-point effort against Florida Atlantic University. That effort came one game after she had a season-high 10 turnovers in a 61-59 loss to the University of Southern Mississippi. That game was Williams' first with a new set of contact lenses. She said she had been playing without contact lenses and had been having problems with depth perception, especially in her left eye. With her vision corrected Sunday, Williams still had seven turnovers, including several miscues when she tried to do things too quickly, but she showed improved execution in the half-court offense as MSU used its size advantage in the high-low set for a 36-16 edge in points in the paint.
Florida A&M (2-7) used only one of its two players who are 6-1 or taller against MSU. It still had a 40-39 edge in rebounding.
Gaynor, the team's only senior, has seen Grant and Williams mature. She said she is extremely proud of both players, and knows they will continue to work hard to become even more well-rounded.
"Last year, Kendra was thrown into the fire really early, and it was hard for her to grow into her game," Gaynor said. "I think she has grown into her game and is not just being a shooter. She is getting to the basket, and mentally she has gotten a lot stronger and smarter with what she is doing.
"Sherise can be a phenomenal player. All she has to do is focus. ... She is the strongest person I have ever seen. She is a freshman, so she is going to make mistakes. Once she learns how to keep focusing and makes sure she is listening to what we are telling her and comprehending, I think the sky is the limit for her game. She is going to be the best player I have ever seen come out of Mississippi State."
Martha Alwal added nine points, 11 rebounds, and four assists in 21 minutes. She missed time in the second half after she tweaked her right knee. Jerica James also had three assists as MSU had a season-high 19 assists (against 20 turnovers).
Former West Oktibbeha County High School standout Shamia Robinson played six minutes in her first action of the season. The 5-8 sophomore forward had two points, two blocked shots, and one steal. Schaefer re-inserted her into the lineup with 1:38 to go as a defensive replacement.
MSU will play host to Jacksonville State at 7 p.m. Thursday.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
1. New Hope turns to Olsen to return soccer program to prominence HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS