December 29, 2012 10:52:20 PM
STARKVILLE -- Martha Alwal and Jessy Ward have heard Vic Schaefer's pleas.
Alwal, Ward, and the rest of the Mississippi State University women's basketball team are doing their best to deliver the consistent effort their coach demands.
On Friday, Alwal, Ward, and their teammates showed flashes they are ready to deliver.
Alwal had 10 points and 13 rebounds for her fifth double-double of the season, and Ward came off the bench to hit a key 3-pointer to trigger a run that propelled MSU to a 65-49 victory against Northwestern State before a crowd of 1,315 at Humphrey Coliseum.
Carnecia Williams scored a game-high 16 points and grabbed eight rebounds to help MSU (7-5) win its fourth game in a row. Katia May also scored a season-high 11 points and matched her season high with six assists.
"It is just teaching instincts now with kids that don't have any, but it also is teaching a level of expectation," Schaefer said. "That is the biggest struggle right now with our staff and this team is understanding when the lights come on you're wearing Mississippi State on the front of your chest that there is a level of expectation in how you're going to play and represent this university."
With only one senior (Darriel Gaynor) on the roster, Schaefer has emphasized his first season as head coach at MSU will be about teaching new habits and creating a different mind-set. He said in the preseason that the steps the team would take would be small at times, which was evident Friday night in the team's first game back following five days off. Northwestern State (4-6) built a 10-point lead in the first half thanks to a sharper, energized effort that allowed it to beat MSU to loose balls and to grab 12 offensive rebounds.
MSU regrouped late in the first half and trailed 31-29 at halftime before using a 15-0 run early in the second half to turn the tide. Alwal and Ward were at the heart of the spurt. Alwal, a 6-foot-4 sophomore center, hit two free throws to give MSU the lead for good, 34-33 with 16 minutes remaining. Ward added a 3-pointer off an assist from Jerica James (eight points, two assists) that fueled the fire. Alwal followed with a leaner off an assist from Ward and a steal and a layup for another basket.
Alwal had played only 28 minutes in the past two games, including a seven-minute cameo in a 69-54 victory against Jacksonville State on Dec. 20. Schaefer was disappointed in Alwal's mind-set to start the game and quickly took her out of the game.
Alwal, who started 15 games and is one of two returning players who saw a lot of playing time last season, understands she needs to play a bigger role this season, especially with only three true post players on the roster. She said she can't take plays off when she was asked how she can challenge herself to get a double-double or more every game.
"I am one to sit around and watch a rebound," Alwal said. "Coach has been getting on me every practice to stop staring and just watching the ball. Points wise, I have to be stronger with the ball and want the ball and want to score instead of just chilling."
Williams, who scored in double figures for the third time this season and matched her career- and season-high in rebounds, said Alwal has it in her to be a "mean" player on the offensive end. She said confidence is the key.
Schaefer agrees and hopes Alwal will be a bigger threat on both ends once MSU opens its 16-game Southeastern Conference schedule. The opener will be at 7 p.m. Jan. 3, 2013, at Vanderbilt University.
"She has a double-double tonight (10 points, 13 rebounds), and I never would have guessed she had 13 rebounds," Schaefer said. "I see her with an ability to do so much more and she doesn't. I see a player with tremendous upside. You know what? It is my job to get it out of her. That kid has an unbelievable upside, and she could be really good, but typical of young, inexperienced players, she takes plays off. But we could talk about all 12 of my kids that way."
Ward fits into the category, too. The 5-8 freshman from Clarksville, Tenn., reached double-digit minutes (all in the second half) for the fifth time this season. She entered the game shooting just 16.1 percent, and admitted it often is difficult coming into the game cold and being asked to provide instant offense. She answered the call against Northwestern State, hitting a 3-pointer from the right corner on her first attempt. Schaefer said Ward scored her only points of the game on a designed play.
"I was very pleased with Jessy and what she gave us coming in and executing and playing hard," Schaefer said.
Ward also contributed in MSU's pressure defense. She would have added to her scoring total, but two of her five attempts went in and out.
"Jessy needs to make shots," Schaefer said. "When she gets an open look, she needs to make shots. She missed two open looks. One was off an out-of-bounds play we ran perfect and she got a wide open look. She needs to finish that layup, but, at the end of the day, the kid came in and gave us a big boost tonight. Her and JJ (James) were big in our spark.
"It would be great to be able to bring in another kid that can score for us, somebody who can stretch the floor. She can stretch it. That helps us a bunch."
Schaefer also was encouraged by the fact MSU had 14 assists and 12 turnovers. May had six assists, while James added two. Northwestern State wasn't able to apply as much defensive pressure in a full- or half-court setting, so MSU's season-low in turnovers was deceiving. MSU is bound to face more intense pressure when it opens SEC play. It also should face its share of zone defenses considering it entered the Northwestern State game shooting 37.4 percent from the field. The Bulldogs have had their most success using a high-look in the half-court offense. That's why the contributions of Alwal and Ward will be so crucial. MSU will need Alwal to provide another inside scoring threat, and it will look to Ward to be a perimeter shooter who can take pressure off sophomore Kendra Grant and the inside game.
Schaefer and his staff will work to push the Bulldogs in that direction. Consistency has been the biggest stumbling block through 12 games, but Schaefer is eager to tackle that challenge with a young, immature, inexperienced team. He said he discussed developing that mentality with the team in a meeting after everybody returned from the holiday break. Now it's up to Alwal, Ward, and the Bulldogs to learn those lessons.
"There are certain players in that locker room that every game have to play well," Schaefer said. "They are blessed with a little more talent than somebody else. That is just the way it is. It is that way in every locker room across the country. Certain players have to step up.
"I have got to find a way other than a halftime chewing out to get them ready to go when the lights go on."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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