February 28, 2013 9:50:49 AM
STARKVILLE -- The college journey is almost over.
From the University of Oregon to Trinity Valley Community College to Mississippi State University, basketball has taken Darriel Gaynor on a winding journey that has had more than its share of ups and downs.
With two regular-season games remaining, that road is nearing an end. Another part of that trip will come at 7 tonight when Gaynor and senior managers Gloria Newell and Maxine Jones are honored before the MSU women's basketball team's game against the University of Georgia at Humphrey Coliseum.
"I have learned a lot," Gaynor said. "Everyone wants that perfect season, that winning season, and we're getting there, but it is toward the end now. We have made some definite strides to become that great team, beating Missouri, beating Ole Miss, beating Arkansas. Those are our highlights of the season, but we are still in the bottom four in the SEC. We have something to be proud of, but we are not finished yet. There is still more we want to accomplish."
The same holds true for Gaynor. She talked in November about being a more aggressive player who hoped to take on a bigger role for coach Vic Schaefer in his first season as head coach at MSU. She admits she has "done as much as she can do" for the Bulldogs this season in her first year of significant playing time in Starkville. She has overcome an anterior cruciate ligament injury at Trinity Valley C.C. and a second surgery at MSU to aid her recovery from the initial injury. She has battled disappointment, frustration, self-doubt, and plenty of time on the sidelines in her first two seasons to earn 20 starts this season. She averaged 8.4 minutes and started only one game as a junior. She played in 22 games as a sophomore, averaging 10.3 minutes.
Schaefer appreciates Gaynor's evolution on and off the court. He feels the 5-foot-6 senior from Las Vegas had her best moment of the season in a 61-56 victory at the University of Missouri on Feb. 10. Gaynor had 14 points, her most in a Southeastern Conference game, thanks to a 4-for-7 shooting performance from 3-point range. She played in 36 minutes in that game, which is one minute off her career high, which arguably was the team's best victory of the season, and its only SEC road victory with a road game March 3 at Auburn University remaining.
"I am happy for Darriel in that she has been able to play a lot more minutes in her final year compared to what she has done early in her career," Schaefer said. "She has waited her turn and her time is now. I think she is embracing the opportunity to play as much as she is getting to play. You're glad when somebody is patient and keeps working hard and when they get their opportunity they can seize the moment. ... I am glad she has been able to have a senior year in which she has been able to be a key component. She is shooting the ball very well from the 3-point line, which is something we desperately need."
Gaynor leads the Bulldogs (12-15, 4-10 Southeastern Conference) in 3-pointers (34) and steals (38). She is shooting 33 percent from 3-point range and is fifth on the team in scoring at 5.7 points per game. As much as she has contributed on and off the floor, Gaynor hopes there is more. She talked with genuine emotion Tuesday about nearing the end of her college career. Even though she describes herself as an "introvert," she hopes her teammates understand how much the game of basketball means to her, and she hopes in some way they have seen how hard she has worked to help the team improve. She hopes her contributions help MSU continue to build back to the level it reached in 2009-10 when it advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament for the first time.
"It is important I try to lead by example on and off the court," Gaynor said. "I try to encourage my teammates to go to class, to get your education, to be on time, to be respectful, to be that image you want younger kids to see you as and want to be like. It is what I live by, being a positive image for myself, for my family, for this university, and for my team. I have done my best to lead by example so Kendra (Grant) can be able to lead by example next year.
"I just want to win. If there is anything they learn from me, I hope it is to do whatever it takes to win."
Gaynor said the finality of her journey didn't come until this week, which is why tonight's game and the ones MSU has remaining will mean more to her. She realizes she will miss everything associated with being a college basketball player. It will be easier to handle that realization if MSU can win its home finale.
"I really want to play basketball for the rest of my life, and knowing I possibly can't is my dilemma now," Gaynor said. "I don't know if (my teammates) know basketball is kind of my heart and soul, but they do know this team is, and they are. The season right now is the most important season. ... I would just tell them thank you for accepting me for who I am and what I could bring to this team, if it was a lot or a little, and thanks for embracing that and accepting me, and thanks for a great three years."
Georgia (23-4, 11-3) is riding a three-game winning streak. It is coming off a 73-54 victory against the University of Mississippi on Sunday in Oxford. Coach Andy Landers earned his 900th career victory in the game. Jasmine Hassell leads Georgia with 12.7 ppg. She is second in the SEC in field goal percentage (54.1 percent).
NOTE: WKBB-FM 100.9 and on WXWX-FM 96.3 will broadcast the game. It also is available for HailStateTV subscribers at www.hailstate.com/hstvlive.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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