October 20, 2013 1:53:55 AM
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Martha Alwal knows a "beast" when she sees one.
Don't get her wrong, though, because Alwal uses the term in the most affectionate way to describe new teammate Chinwe Okorie. It's just that after two weeks of banging bodies with the 6-foot-5 freshman Okorie, who is strong, athletic, and difficult to displace from the block or the lane, Alwal has a new appreciation of what it is like to compete against someone her size.
"Oh my gosh. Going against Chinwe is probably the hardest thing I have ever done basketball wise," said Alwal, who is 6-4. "She has been doing really well, and she makes all of the post players play so much better, and she is making us stronger whether we like it or not."
Mississippi State women's basketball coach Vic Schaefer hopes Alwal competing against Okorie in practice will help the beast in her come out. Practices are a great way to develop those beastly habits, especially when you have to bump hips and bodies with someone as big as Okorie, but Alwal appears to have developed an appreciation for it. Earlier this month, Alwal seemed to relish the contact when she crashed into the lane and threw her body into Okorie. The hip check didn't move Okorie from the center of the lane, but it is something Alwal wouldn't have done in her first two seasons at MSU.
"Her frame is tremendously improved," Schaefer said. "Our strength (and conditioning) coach (Richard Akins) has done a tremendous job with her. Her frame has changed, and I think she is built to do it. Now it is a matter of her going out and making it happen. That is sometimes easier said than done. It is easy to talk the talk. You have to walk the walk. I think for her we're waiting to see if she can walk the walk."
Last season, Alwal received the Gillom Trophy in recognition of being the state's best women's basketball player. She also was named Second Team All-Southeastern Conference (honorable mention by The Associated Press) and to the league's all-defensive team. She paced MSU in scoring (12.1 points), rebounding (9.7), and blocked shots (78, 2.6 per game), and ranked 20th in the league in scoring and first in rebounding and blocks. She also topped the SEC with 18 double-figure rebounding games (9.9 rebounds per game) and 16 double-doubles in the regular season. Her efforts tied LaToya Thomas (2001-02) for the second-most in a season. She also became the first MSU player since Tan White (2005) to record three-straight double-doubles when she accomplished the feat against Arkansas, Missouri, and Ole Miss.
In her first season, she was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team after leading the SEC and rating 16th nationally in blocked shots (82). She started 15 of 30 games.
But Schaefer has said many times since he took over as coach last year that Alwal has just scratched the surface of her potential. He also has said he isn't sure if Alwal truly knows how good she can be. Having to compete against Okorie might leave Alwal with a few more bruises and aches and pains, but Schaefer knows having another true post player should motivate and push Alwal to realize how good she can be. MSU will get its first chance to see how much going against Okorie has helped Alwal at 7 p.m. Nov. 4 when MSU will play host to Shorter in an exhibition game at Humphrey Coliseum.
"I think that is the challenge for Martha to realize you have a kid you can go against every day that if you can score against her and develop, you can score against anybody in the country, and you can score for a long time," Schaefer said. "Your career is not going to be over in two years. She has to learn how to embrace that opportunity every day with Chinwe."
Alwal admits it is either "get beat up" by Okorie in practice and not try to get better or go in there and try to play against Okorie and be strong. To do that, Alwal said she has been trying to get mean to give herself an edge. That isn't easy because Alwal's personality never will be confused with enforcer's, but her long wingspan and her shooting range to the top of the key are good weapons to have when you're a post player. Alwal said the key is putting all of those things together and believing she can play at a high level and pushing herself every practice and game. She talked with pride Thursday at SEC Media Days of running the mile in 6 minutes, 55 seconds in a preseason conditioning drill. She was pleased with that mark because she said it was challenging at times last season to adjust to Schaefer's expectations. After she smiled at her time in the mile, she did a shimmy in her seat for one of the media members who was videotaping the interview.
It remains to be seen if that shimmy is a move she will break out against Okorie or other post players, but it could be a sign Alwal is ready to emerge as a bigger presence or, if she gets mean enough, a beast.
"I am just trying to bring it every day," Alwal said. "Schaefer is always going to get on me about not taking plays off, but it is really up to me to motivate myself and want to work all of the time. I have to remember if we want to get anywhere I can't take plays off. I have to go hard all of the time."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.