December 29, 2012 8:51:21 AM
STARKVILLE -- The holiday doldrums lasted nearly 20 minutes longer than Vic Schaefer wanted.
Returning from a five-day break for Christmas, the Mississippi State University women's basketball team used the first half Friday night to work back up to speed before finding its stride in the second half for a 65-49 victory against Northwestern State before a a crowd of 1,315 at Humphrey Coliseum.
MSU (7-5) used a 15-0 run to turn a one-point deficit into a 47-33 lead on a steal by Darriel Gaynor that resulted in a layup by Jerica James with 12 minutes, 25 seconds remaining.
Carnecia Williams (game-high 16 points, eight rebounds) led three MSU players in double figures. Katia May scored a season-high 11 points and matched her season-high with six assists, while Martha Alwal had 10 points and 13 rebounds for her fifth double-double of the season. Kendra Grant added nine points and James had eight as the Bulldogs outscored the Lady Demons (4-6) 36-18 in the second half.
But as spirited as MSU was in forcing 13 turnovers in the second half, Schaefer was more concerned about his team's ability to keep its focus. Maintaining that mind-set will be especially important because MSU opens its 16-game Southeastern Conference season at 7 p.m. Jan. 3, 2013, at Vanderbilt University.
"You love the way they come out in the second half, but it shouldn't have to be like that," Schaefer said. "We have had more than one of those (halftime talks) this year. We have had more than one of those serious heart to hearts. That is not fun in coaching to do that all of the time. (Assistant coach) Aqua (Franklin) had to do that against Jacksonville State. It is not why you get into coaching. You would like kids to be ready, to be excited about playing, to have a game plan, to go execute. We're certainly coaching them to do that."
MSU led Jacksonville State 32-28 at halftime in its last game Dec. 20 before its holiday break. The team returned to practice Wednesday night to continue its lessons for the second half of the season. Unfortunately, Schaefer said he saw things in the first half that have plagued MSU all season. He reiterated that it is typical for a young and inexperienced squad to need time to digest new approaches and to play with the consistent effort and attitude he and his assistant coaches require.
"Somebody told me the other day your team usually takes on the personality of your head coach. I am hoping that will happen," Schaefer said. "I am a pretty competitive guy. I don't like to lose, and I like to execute and do things the right way. That is why they hired us. We're going to do it the right way. I need my team to try to start embracing that a little bit. I am hopeful they can. They are awfully sweet kids. They are nice kids, but, at some point, when the lights come on I need the sweetness to go away and I need an animal to appear for about two hours. Right now I am really struggling with getting that game face on these young people."
Northwestern State set the tone by getting five offensive rebounds in the first 4:37 to erase a 4-0 deficit. The Lady Demons continued to be the aggressors and built a 24-14 lead on a Jasmine Upchurch layup with 7:23 to play. Northwestern State beat MSU down the court, outhustled the Bulldogs to loose balls, and capitalized on its opponent's apparent malaise for the first 15 minutes. Schaefer epitomized his team's effort by telling May, "You're jogging," before he sent in James to replace her at the 5:51 mark.
May responded, though, at the end of the half with a 3-pointer late in the half that appeared to spark the team, and allowed it to close the half on a 15-7 run that put it back in striking distance.
"The first half we didn't come out with any energy or heart," Alwal said. "We just played really slow and we weren't running our offense. Defensively, we weren't sticking with our man and we didn't help. During halftime, coach really reamed us out, and I think we all had a change of heart after that."
The incentive from the chat at intermission carried over to the second half. Thanks in part to Gaynor, MSU turned up the intensity on its full-court pressure. Two free throws by Alwal gave MSU the lead for good, 34-33, with 16 minutes to play. A 3-pointer by Jessy Ward followed at 14:38 and was the trigger that enabled the Bulldogs to catch fire. Alwal also picked up her play, scoring on a leaner on an assist from Ward and then making a steak and scoring on a layup. James added another layup off a steal before Gaynor added another theft and fed James for a layup.
"At halftime tonight I don't think anybody needed to be in our locker room to know it probably wasn't a great place to be," Schaefer said. "You give up five offensive rebounds by the first media timeout, you're not playing hard, you're standing around looking, watching. We're just having to teach these kids some accountability. I think that is the word of the day. Do your job and be accountable. We finally got after it, I thought, a little bit toward the end of the first half. In the second half, the press kind of kicked in and they turned it over some and we got some easy looks off that and we finally scored inside."
Ward, a 5-foot-8 freshman guard from Clarksville, Tenn., had played in only seven minutes in the past three games. Her 12-minute effort (all in the second half) was her fifth game of 11 or more minutes.
"It is tough because I have been sitting on the bench getting cold, but I just have to go out every time and try to take advantage of the opportunity I am getting," Ward said. "I just went out there and it felt good, so I was just shooting and it went in."
Ward said it helps give her confidence when she makes her first shot. On Friday, her 3-pointer from the right corner sparked the Bulldogs. She said she could feel her teammates' energy start to flow a little faster in the run that broke the game open.
Carnecia Williams said she didn't know why the team has struggled at the start of games. She said everyone has to be more focused so the team can deliver a punch like opponents have been doing to them.
"We have to learn how to start with more intensity," Williams said. "We didn't come out with an intensity or with a mind-set to hold them to a certain amount of points. We were basically out there running around. We didn't know where our men were and we weren't blocking out. That has been our biggest struggle so far, and that is something we have to continue to work on."
Schaefer emphasized he and his assistant coaches will continue to teach the instincts and level of expectation players need to have if they are going to wear a MSU jersey.
"I felt like at halftime we were lacking some pride in who we are, what we are representin', not just Mississippi State, but our families and the people who have paid the price for us to be where we are today," Schaefer said. "I feel a tremendous obligation to Mississippi State and to (Director of Athletics) Scott (Stricklin) and the opportunity he has provided me. I am going to work my tail off. I need kids who feel the same way, who have that same sense of obligation."
NOTES: Walk-on J'Net Wash scored her first points of the season on a jump shot with 36.1 seconds left in the game. It was the second appearance of the season for the 6-2 sophomore forward from Brandon. ... MSU had 14 assists and 12 turnovers, its first game this season with a positive assist-to-turnover ratio. The 12 turnovers were a season low. ... MSU held Northwestern State to 6-of-26 shooting (23.1 percent) in the second half. The shooting percentage matched a season-low for an opponent. Florida Atlantic shot 23.1 percent (9 of 39) in the second half on Dec. 7. ... The Lady Demons' 27.8 shooting mark (15 of 54) for the game also was a season-low for an opponent, and the third time in the past four games the Bulldogs have held the opposition below 30 percent from the field. ... Gaynor matched a season-high with four steals to help MSU build a 22-12 edge in points off turnovers.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.