January 28, 2013 11:00:19 AM
STARKVILLE -- Kendra Grant provided the perfect exclamation point Sunday afternoon.
Down to its final possession in its best half this season, Grant cradled the ball on the left wing and eyed the rim. Once a perimeter threat who hesitated to leave the familiar territory of the 3-point arc, Grant didn't think twice, moving toward the baseline against Tia Faleru with a purpose. She absorbed contact as she skirted the tightrope and muscled up for a layup that delivered the final punctuation.
Afterward, Grant received a bear hug and several claps on the back from coach Vic Schaefer for an effort that helped make history.
Martha Alwal had 23 points, 12 rebounds, and five blocked shots, and Grant added 20 points and six rebounds to help the Mississippi State University women's basketball team rally for a 72-57 victory against the University of Mississippi before a crowd of 1,531 at Humphrey Coliseum.
The victory was the first for MSU and Schaefer in the Southeastern Conference this season. It was even more satisfying because MSU (9-11, 1-6) rallied from a lackluster first half in which it trailed by six points at halftime. The Bulldogs responded with a second half that helped them put four players in double figures -- Katia May (15 points) and Carnecia Williams (11) -- for the second time this season and post their highest scoring output in a SEC game this season.
Alwal and Grant also teamed to give MSU two players with 20 or more points in the same game since a 63-62 loss to Louisiana Tech on Dec. 11, 2011.
"It was just like a sigh of relief," Grant said. "We needed this win. We needed it for him. It was nice."
Grant, 5-foot-10 sophomore guard from Richland, averaged 7.3 points last season in starting all 30 games. This season, she figured to play a big role with Alwal, a 6-4 sophomore center on a team with only one senior --Darriel Gaynor. While Grant had logged 40 minutes in four of the team's SEC games entering Sunday, she has had ups and downs as she tries to grow into a role as a primary scoring option, an in-your-face defender, and a leader. All of those things came together against Ole Miss, as Grant shot 8 of 12 from the field and delivered the game's two biggest daggers. With MSU holding a 44-40 lead and with the game in the balance, Grant scored on a drive with 10 minutes, 43 seconds remaining and followed with a jump shot from the left wing to kick the lead to 48-40. She had 10 of MSU's points in a 12-5 spurt that enabled the Bulldogs to push the lead to 56-45 with seven minutes to go. Ole Miss didn't get closer than 10 points the rest of the way.
"For lack of a better word it was my time," Grant said. "Coach said the last couple of games I haven't taken as many shots as I should. Me even taking more shots is making a step,and tonight they were falling, for the most part.
"It was good for us because we needed that momentum changer."
Grant was selected to play in the Mississippi/Alabama All-Star Game after a senior season at Richland High in which she averaged 14.2 points per game. She also was selected to The Clarion-Ledger's Dandy Dozen in 2011. That list recognize the state's top players. Grant said part of her transition this season has been getting back to a mind-set she had in high school when she knew she was the team's go-to player and had to be aggressive on offense. While she has turned down shots in other games and did so again Sunday, Grant said she feels more comfortable knowing she has to produce if the Bulldogs are going to be successful.
"Coach told me a couple of days ago I was being too passive," Grant said. "He always has this thing where he says I am killing his joy. There are days where we may be doing something bad in practice and he is like, 'You're killing my joy.' He told me that because I wasn't shooting a lot in games. I think I took that to heart and have just tried to shoot more and knock down shots."
Ole Miss acting coach Brett Frank praised Grant for hitting key shots at a point where his team could have found its footing.
"She had two huge baskets at a critical juncture," Frank said. "She is a great athlete and a great scorer. She is not the player you necessarily classify as a shooter. She is not what you classify as a penetrator. She is just a scorer. She can do a little bit of everything. Because of her length and her athleticism and her ability to really get up and to extend on her jump shots, I think she s a difficult assignment for most players."
Schaefer recognized all of those traits in Grant and his team after the game. The former University of Arkansas and Texas A&M University assistant and associate head coach didn't have a moment like former North Carolina State University men's basketball coach after the game when he ran around the court looking for someone to embrace, but he was visibly emotional. He hugged Alwal as the players filed off the court and then called Grant over and wrapped her tight and pounded her back. He then sat down in a manner that suggested he and MSU had just taken a load off their backs.
For a coach with a nickname "Secretary of Defense," it couldn't have come in a better way. MSU used an intense defensive effort and a 72-percent shooting performance (18 of 25) to erase a 32-26 halftime deficit. Ole Miss dictated the tempo in the first half, grabbing 14 offensive rebounds and holding 26-15 edge in that category. MSU's work in the second half cut the Ole Miss' final tally to 38-37.
"I thought our effort was like it should be," Schaefer said. "In the first half, I wasn't impressed with our effort. Dribble penetration was an issue. Rebounding was an issue. ... We did a much better job rebounding in the second half. ... In the second half, I really felt like we did a much better job on offense.
"The kids are great kids, and I am trying to teach them to be competitors. I thought today they really made a step in that direction, at least for a day."
Just as Schaefer was pleased with his team's effort, he credited Grant for recognizing he doesn't care if she doesn't have another assist this season. Schaefer used that same remark to compliment Grant earlier in the season. The satisfaction Sunday was that it finally seemed to sink in and click in a way it hadn't through the first 19 games.
"She is 2 out of 5 at halftime and we are telling her you have to take more shots and to be more aggressive," Schaefer said. "She is just an unselfish kid. Give the kid credit for that (but) I want her to shoot the ball. When she is open, she has to knock down shots for us. It looked good tonight. She takes a couple of those on the wing in transition and they go in and they're nothing but cotton now, and she is knocking those down with some confidence. That kids has to play like that for us. I have to find a way to get her 12 to 15 to 18 shots a game."
Faleru scored 16 points for Ole Miss. Valencia McFarland added seven points, a career-high nine rebounds, and six assists, Diara Moore had 12 points, and Danielle McCray had 10 for the Rebels (8-12, 1-6). Ole Miss was coming off an 88-81 victory Thursday at the University of Florida. That game was the Rebels' highest-scoring SEC game, and their second-highest scoring game of the season. They came in averaging 68.3 ppg.
MSU will play at 6 p.m. Thursday at the University of Tennessee. CSS will broadcast the game live. Ole Miss will play host to Arkansas at 7 p.m. Thursday. The game is Military Appreciation Night and Veterans receive free admission.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.