November 10, 2013 1:20:31 AM
HOUSTON -- In the most unintentional way possible, the Mississippi State women's basketball team might have begun the process of proving it has more than just one all-conference player.
With All-Southeastern Conference junior Martha Alwal fouled out, the Bulldogs were forced to protect a lead in a hostile environment in the final several minutes before they closed an 76-68 victory against Houston in the season opener for both teams.
With a little more than six minutes left in the game and MSU nursing an eight-point lead, Alwal was called for her fifth foul more than 60 feet away from Houston's basket. MSU then had to show it could withstand the pressure of sealing the deal on the road without its 6-foot-4 center.
"With Martha out, we knew there was a challenge out there to be taken," MSU freshman forward Breanna Richardson said. "We love Martha to death, and she's a great player in this league, but we see this a team unit and proved it starting tonight."
MSU saw Houston cut its lead to three, 67-64 on a layup by Demetria Foreman with 3 minutes, 30 seconds remaining, but it closed the game on a 9-4 run to secure its second-straight season-opening victory under coach Vic Schaefer. The victory had extra significance for Schaefer, a Houston native, as he left the handshake line and leaped into the Hofheinz Pavilion stands to be with friends and family who were wearing maroon and white.
"I thought we fought through adversity all game," Schaefer said. "We learned a lot about our resilience and our ability to battle when things weren't going our way."
Alwal was plagued with foul trouble all evening, but MSU had four players in double figures, with Alwal's 10 points being the lowest of those totals. Alwal helped MSU build a 16-3 advantage early, as every basket but one came on a touch in the paint.
"It's a process in a 40-minute game, and she helped us get that big lead early," Schaefer said. "The fouls just plagued her all night and by about the 15-minute mark, she was a non-factor, but that didn't deter our kids. I looked at two or three other posts and they knew it was their turn."
MSU completed the two-year, home-and-home series sweep of Houston thanks to a dominating 16-point advantage in the paint led by Richardson. The Conyers, Ga., native led the Bulldogs with 14 points in her college basketball debut. She also had four rebounds in 33 minutes.
"I may have nervous jitters before the game and I usually do, but it's strange because once the ball goes up, they're gone," Richardson said.
MSU senior Katia May defined what Schaefer has been asking from his point guard position since he took over the program. The 5-foot-2 spark plug had a career-high 11 assists and no turnovers in 38 minutes.
"I thought her decision-making was outstanding, and Katia was pretty much in the zone as much as a point guard can be in," Schaefer said. "It starts with your point guard with me, and they led the way."
Despite a sunk-in 2-3 zone defense by Houston, MSU still scored 24 of its 31 first-half points in the paint.
"Even though they are in a zone you can still set screens to get people open, and coach had been on us all week in practice about setting the right screens in the right place against a zone," Richardson said. "We have good posts, so people are going to zone us. This isn't a shock. Everybody was still wide open."
May said she's finally started to see Schaefer's up-tempo style starting to slow down for her mentally, and she allowed her decision-making to be up the standard of a veteran point guard.
"It's as simple as I've been here a year and know what he likes and, more importantly, doesn't like, so I know how to run this offense well for my team," May said.
The victory marked the 10th-straight season-opening victory for MSU. It will play host to Jackson State at 7 p.m. Wednesday, which will kick off a stretch of games at home that also features New Orleans, Tennessee Tech, and Savannah State.
MSU, which returns four starters from last year's team, tried to establish Schaefer's up-tempo style in the final 20 minutes. Picked to finish 11th in the SEC, MSU outscored Houston 15-2 on points of turnovers in the second half and never lost the lead thanks to a defense that forced 22 turnovers.
While Alwal will likely continue to draw defensive attention from opposing defenses, Schaefer is much more confident in his team's scoring punch. With Houston begging MSU to take uncontested jump shots, guards Kendra Grant and Savannah Carter each hit key 3-pointers to help start the season the right way.
Houston received 46 points from its bench, including a game-high 18 points from guard Jessieka Palmer. The sophomore was 4 of 4 from 3-point range. Not one member of the Houston starting lineup, which returned four members from last year's team, reached double figures. The starters had 12 of the team's 22 turnovers.
n Ole Miss 83, Jacksonville State 62: At Oxford, Trailing at halftime, Ole Miss came out of the locker room on a tear and with a 59-point second half and cruised past Jacksonville State on Friday night in the season opener for both teams at the Tad Smith Coliseum.
The Rebels had three players in double figures, led by a team-high 18 points from Tia Faleru. Valencia McFarland and Diara Moore had 15 and 11 points, respectively, while Kenyotta Jenkins led the way with 12 rebounds.
"It's a tale of two halves," Ole Miss coach Matt Insell said. "We came out in the second half, and it was all about our effort. I'm very happy to get this first win under our belts. The kids were nervous. We aren't going to the postseason in November, but every game is important. These kids played hard in the second half."
Trailing 35-24 at halftime, Ole Miss opened the second half on a 16-2 run to tie the game 41 at the 14-minute, 49-second mark. A three-point play from Danielle McCray 1:39 later would put the Rebels up 46-45, a lead they wouldn't relinquish.
The Rebels shot just 19.5 percent (8 of 41) from the field, including 0 of 11 from the 3-point line.
The Gamecocks, led by Candace Morton who posted a game-high 21 points and 13 rebounds, held a 13-point lead over the Rebels in the first stanza and closed the half on a 6-1 run to take an 11-point halftime lead.
Freshman Bretta Hart provided a spark for the Rebels off the bench in the final minutes of the first half. The rookie out of Poplarville provided a big block and went 4 of 4 down the line to rally her squad late.
The second half was a much different story for the Rebels, who shot 61.5 percent (24 of 39) shooting and drained three triples.
Ole Miss will play host to Central Arkansas at 2 p.m. Sunday on International Students Day. Also if you bring your ticket stub from the Arkansas football game you get in free.
n Chattanooga, 82, Alabama 70: At Chattanooga, Tenn., Shafontaye Myers led four Alabama players in double figures with 19 points, but a big first half helped the Lady Mocs hold on for the win Friday night in the season opener for both teams at McKenzie Arena.
Nikki Hegstetter added a career-high 16, Daisha Simmons had 15, and Ashley Williams added 10 for the Crimson Tide. Myers also notched a team-best six rebounds in addition to four assists. The Lady Mocs were led by Taylor Hall's 24-point performance, while Faith Dupree collected the game's lone double-double with 10 points and 13 rebounds.
Chattanooga led from the start and built a 37-19 advantage with 3 minutes, 54 seconds remaining in half. It led 45-21 at halftime.
Alabama used an 18-7 run to pull within 12 before running out of clock.
Chattanooga shot 48.3 percent (29 of 60) from the field and 81.8 percent (18 of 22) from the free-throw line. Alabama shot 46.9 percent (30 of 64), including 62.5 percent (20 of 32) in the second half.
Alabama will take on No. 17 Nebraska at 7:05 p.m. Monday.
Staff Reports were included in this report.
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.