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MSU women show toughness in victory against Arkansas

 

Adam Minichino

 

STARKVILLE -- Some shots have to be taken. 

 

As a shooter who has struggled with her confidence, Darriel Gaynor knows she has to keep firing to keep defenses honest. 

 

Some games have to be won.  

 

As someone who has turned to defense to spark her offense, Gaynor is just one example of how the Mississippi State University women's basketball team is learning coach Vic Schaefer's in-your-face mind-set has to be practiced every possession. 

 

On Sunday, Gaynor and the Bulldogs delivered a defensive effort that begged to be rewarded. It wasn't until the final shot that MSU learned it had earned its just reward. 

 

Martha Alwal had a team-high 14 points to go with 12 rebounds, Kendra Grant added 11 points, and Gaynor hit three 3-pointers and scored nine points to help push MSU to a 47-44 victory against the University of Arkansas before a crowd of 1,318 at Humphrey Coliseum. 

 

MSU (10-12, 2-7 Southeastern Conference) took the victory thanks to three defensive stops in the final minute. It also forced Arkansas (15-7, 3-6) into 20 turnovers, tied for its second-most this season, and limited the Razorbacks to 20.8 percent shooting in the first half, its lowest mark in a half. 

 

MSU's effort was just one reason why a fan told his son leaving the game, "They deserved it." 

 

Schaefer and his players shared that sentiment after the game in which the teams combined for more turnovers (39) than field goals (33). 

 

"I think we deserved it," Gaynor said. "We have been working hard in practice. We have been working on defense, and I think we paid the price like coach has been saying. We got down in the second half and we came back and had a score, stop, score. I think we did a good job." 

 

Gaynor had a hand in the defensive statement in the final minute. Following a switch of players with Grant, Gaynor reached in to knock the ball away from Dominique Wilson on a drive to the basket to help preserve a 46-44 lead. Sarah Watkins (15 points) missed a 3-pointer on Arkansas' next possession, but Wilson corralled the rebound, which allowed the Razorbacks to call timeout with 18.7 seconds to go. Keira Peak lost the ball on a drive to the basket on the ensuing play. Grant crashed into Watkins, who was on the floor, in a scramble to try to retrieve the ball, only to have it go off Watkins out of bounds. Grant hit the first free throw and missed the second with six seconds to play. Wilson rebounded the shot and missed a one-handed runner that went in and rimmed out at the horn. 

 

Gaynor also fueled MSU's half-court offense. The 5-foot-6 senior, who entered the game shooting 30 percent from the field, hit her most 3-pointers in a game and scored her most points since she had five treys and 15 points in a victory against Troy University on Dec. 29 in Starkville. Gaynor passed up another 3-pointer to feed Alwal for a layup that gave MSU a 46-42 lead with 2 minutes, 9 seconds remaining. Gaynor said Schaefer's system demands that players get up the line and into the passing lanes to disrupt an opponent's offense. Gaynor had one steal Sunday to push her team-leading total to 34. Her recognition of how she can help the team when one part of her game isn't working is just another example of how the Bulldogs have matured since the start of the season. 

 

"These kids deserve to feel good about themselves," Schaefer said. "There isn't anybody in the country that works harder than those kids. They work their tail off every day. I am proud to be their coach and happy they are earning some credibility and some victories with their hard work." 

 

The continued emergence of Alwal is another example. The 6-4 center had to leave the court area early in the second half due to an upset stomach. She returned to the bench, put her head in her hands, and didn't look like she was 100 percent. But she returned to the game at the 13:51 mark and played a team-high 37 minutes. She had three blocked shots to go along with her 11th double-double of the season. She is the first player since LaToya Thomas in the 2002-03 season to record 10 or more double-doubles in a season. 

 

"Like Darriel said, he is getting us disciplined," Alwal said. "Last year, if I would have been sick I would have been done with it. No one would have been like, 'C'mon Martha, we need you.' As soon as I went to the bathroom, like two minutes later I had one of the managers running in after me like, 'C'mon, he wants you out there.' They want more out of us." 

 

Said Gaynor, "He demands the best out of us. He is going to do whatever he can to get it out of us." 

 

Maybe that's how MSU can bounce back from an 88-45 loss to then-No. 9 University of Tennessee on Thursday. Gaynor said the Bulldogs won't stop learning their lessons and building confidence to help it erase the memory of big losses to Tennessee, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt. Schaefer hopes that is the case with a team with only one senior -- Gaynor -- and players that appear to be enjoying the hard-nosed defensive mind-set approach Schaefer and his coaches have installed. 

 

"I loved our grittiness and our toughness," Schaefer said. "I loved our resilience. We were able to bounce back when things kind of got away from us and regroup and get a stop, a score, a stop, and a score." 

 

Gaynor epitomized that composure. Despite her shooting percentage, she was in shooting position each time she caught the ball and was prepared to deliver a quick trigger. She was equally ready on the defensive end, shadowing her player and hawking the ball every chance she had. Gaynor and the Bulldogs showed Sunday they are learning some things just have to be done to have success. 

 

"It definitely has been a long journey, but I think we are finally starting to pull it together," Gaynor said. "We weren't used to working so hard and being disciplined. I think we are finally starting to get that now. ... I think we are doing a good job. Everyone is focused in now. Everyone is buying into his plan." 

 

MSU will return to action at 1 p.m. Sunday against the University of Missouri Sunday. 

 

 

Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.

 

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