January 4, 2013 10:50:57 AM
STARKVILLE -- The Mississippi State University women's basketball team is eager to see just how much more it has to give.
The "monster" is sure to provide instant feedback in the next 16 games.
MSU (8-5) and first-year head coach Vic Schaefer will get their first chance to see how they fare against Southeastern Conference competition at 7 tonight when they take on Vanderbilt University (10-3) in Nashville, Tenn. The "monster" is how Schaefer, a longtime assistant/associate coach at the University of Arkansas and Texas A&M University, refers to the SEC. The 16-game marathon that will run through the first week of March will test the mettle of a young and inexperienced MSU team that enters tonight's game on a five-game winning streak. All of those games have come in the comfortable confines of Humphrey Coliseum against teams that -- frankly -- pale in comparison to the challenge the Bulldogs will face in their Thursday-Sunday carousel.
But the challenge doesn't faze Schaefer, who has seen his players mature since the preseason. He said the top item on the agenda is building consistency as a team and as individuals.
"It is about toughness," Schaefer said. "You have to be physical in this league You have to be aggressive, and that's what we have been trying to teach these guys."
MSU's first 20 minutes Saturday in an 82-60 victory against Troy University encouraged Schaefer. The Bulldogs played arguably their best half of basketball this season in building a 48-27 halftime lead. Schaefer said the team built on that effort with solid practices Monday and Tuesday. He hopes the rebounding (a 48-35 edge) defensive intensity (14 steals), and offensive execution (Martha Alwal and Carnecia Williams had double-doubles) carries over to tonight.
"If you play bad in the SEC you're not going to get beat, you're going to get embarrassed," Schaefer said. "We talked about that, but you have to be careful talking too much and being too specific to an inexperienced team. We have to relax. We can't go in there all tied up because then you can't play. You have to be able to be comfortable, but, at the same time, you have to be able to compete. That has been one of the challenges for our staff."
Vanderbilt, which is also receiving votes in this week's Associated Press Top 25, has won seven games in a row after a three-game losing skid that saw it drop games to the University of Dayton, the University of Virginia, and Florida State University. Vanderbilt regrouped to beat then-No. 12 University of Oklahoma on Dec. 16 in Norman, Okla. The scoring duo of forward Tiffany Clarke (15.8 points per game) and guard Christina Foggie (15.7 ppg) leads coach Melanie Balcomb's team. Schaefer knows the Commodores will be disciplined and will have the advantage in the unique setting of Memorial Gymnasium. Still, he is anxious to see how his players respond for their first SEC road game of the season.
"We have our work cut out for us," Schaefer said. "They have a bunch of starters back from a team that was really good a year ago. Nothing has changed. They still have kids who shoot it and they still have kids inside who can finish."
As far as his team is concerned, Schaefer feels MSU should be 11-2. He said he takes full responsibility for three games he feels the Bulldogs should have won. All but one of the team's losses have been by eight points or less. He said he challenged the kids to get better each day and to "lay it on the line" every second. If that happens, he is confident the team will get results.
Sophomore guard Kendra Grant knows what to expect tonight. She started all 30 games last season and is one of two players (Alwal started 15 games last season) who knows what facing "the monster" every game from here on out means.
"We just have to come with it," Grant said. "Non-conference play, we have had some challenges and we know the SEC is going to be tough. We have been watching film and preparing ourselves for the challenge."
Grant said the players have talked about the differences they will face in size, quickness, athleticism, and execution in the SEC. She said the team would love to have a better record entering league play, but she and her teammates aren't satisfied with the progress they have made. In fact, she said the Bulldogs believe they can compete in the SEC, especially if they continue to "stack" team and individual efforts. She pointed to the squad's improved rebounding in the past two games. MSU had outrebounded the opposition in each of the past two games.
Williams, a 6-foot-3 redshirt forward, has played an integral role in the Bulldogs' improvement. She had 20 points and 10 rebounds against Troy and 16 points and eight rebounds in a 65-49 victory against Northwestern State. She understands MSU needs to deliver more as a team and that she, too, will need to emerge as a consistent contributor if the squad wants to prove it belongs.
"We have been working really hard in practice," Williams said. "The last two days in practice have been upbeat, and everybody has been really focused. I think we are all on the same page. We all want to beat Vanderbilt, to get better, and to go into SEC play."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.