February 15, 2013 2:50:28 AM
OXFORD -- A tale of two halves and a tale of two games.
That's the fastest and easiest way to describe how the University of Mississippi women's basketball team snapped a six-game losing streak to Mississippi State University with a 65-51 victory on Thursday night at Tad Smith Coliseum.
Valencia McFarland scored a game-high 19 points, grabbed eight rebounds, and handed out eight assists to help Ole Miss (9-15, 2-9 Southeastern Conference) erase the memory of a 72-57 loss to MSU (11-13, 3-8) on Jan. 27 in Starkville. In that game, the Bulldogs shot 72 percent in the second half and outscored the Rebels 46-25.
On Thursday, the roles were reversed. Even though Ole Miss shot only 43.8 percent (14 of 32) from the field in the final 20 minutes, its energy and ability to dictate the tempo knocked MSU off balance. The Bulldogs shot 24.1 percent (7 of 29) in the second half, their second-lowest percentage in a second half this season.
MSU, which led 35-27 at halftime, scored 16 points in the second half, a low in a half for any Ole Miss opponent this season.
"I guess we comfortable and just took our foot off the gas when it should have been on there the whole time," MSU sophomore guard Kendra Grant said. "They were beating us in transition up and down the floor. I guess we just let up."
Martha Alwal epitomized MSU's disappointment in the postgame interview room. The 6-foot-4 sophomore center, who had 13 points and 11 rebounds (five blocked shots) for her SEC-leading 13th double-double of the season, slouched in her chair and looked worn out. She said the Bulldogs' problems weren't a result of rushing things, even though they had 11 of their 19 turnovers in the second half. Instead, she said Ole Miss did everything it needed to do to end MSU's six-game winning streak in the series that dated back to Jan. 21, 2010.
"I think they beat us in transition and they beat us on plenty of offensive rebounds," Alwal said. "They just wanted it more than we did."
Schaefer echoed that disappointment and praised Ole Miss coach Brett Frank for "taking the fight" to his team. He said Frank and the Rebels "outcoached, outplayed, and outhustled" the Bulldogs.
"Obviously I didn't have my kids ready to play today, and he did," Schaefer said. "I am disappointed in myself more than anything."
MSU extended its lead to 39-29 on a jumper by Alwal at the 18-minute, 9-second mark before the train went off the tracks. The Bulldogs went 7:21 without a field goal as the Rebels turned a 10-point deficit into a 47-40 lead on a jumper by Courtney Marbra off an assist from McFarland with 11:53 to go. A jump shot by Katia May (eight points, four assists) ended the run, but MSU went another 7:03 without a field goal as Ole Miss put the finishing touches on a 30-3 run.
Frank said he felt his team seized the momentum when it took the lead for the first time, 40-39, on two free throws by Kenyotta Jenkins (10 points, eight rebounds) with 13:36 to play. Gracie Frizzell (three 3-pointers, nine points) and Tia Faleru (11 points, 11 rebounds) also got into the act to help Ole Miss snap an overall four-game losing skid.
"I thought tonight's game was a tale of two halves," Frank said. "I thought Mississippi State came in and absolutely dominated us in the first half. They were physical with us and pretty much dictated the entire way the game was being played. I felt like at halftime our kids took some ownership and some responsibility and took a step in the right direction as far as determining they wanted to play the game in their style."
The spurt wouldn't have been as surprising if MSU hadn't looked so at ease in the first half. The Bulldogs led by as many as 12 points thanks to a poised effort in which they didn't commit their first turnover until the 11:36 mark. Up until that point, MSU worked the ball inside to Alwal and controlled the backboards to deny Ole Miss opportunities to get out in transition to score easy baskets. That all changed in the snap of the fingers, though, as MSU forced passes and rushed shots for the nearly the rest of the game.
Schaefer said the mistakes were the byproduct of youth and inexperience. Coming in riding a two-game winning streak, Schaefer said he was eager to see how his team responded to success. He said his team has handled adversity and bounced back to play well. Unfortunately, it showed for this night it wasn't ready to begin the month of February with three straight victories for the first time in program history.
"We ran into a very focused team today, especially No. 3 (McFarland)," Schaefer said. "She did what any competitor will do after losing a battle. She waits for the next opportunity and she took advantage of it today. There is no doubt she won her position today."
MSU used a 9-0 run in the final four minutes to cut Ole Miss' lead, which had grown to 59-42, to eight. But McFarland scored the final six points for the Rebels to put her stamp on a game that she helped turn with her steady hand.
Grant led the Bulldogs with 16 points.
MSU will play host to LSU at 12:30 p.m. Sunday (SportSouth). The game will be the Bulldogs' annual "Think Pink" game. The first 750 fans will receive free T-shirts.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.