November 22, 2013 11:05:57 AM
STARKVILLE -- Jim Davis knew his Tennessee Tech women's basketball team was going to face pressure Thursday night.
As prepared as the veteran coach and the Golden Eagles were, Mississippi State's energy on both ends of the floor was too much to derail.
"Your kids played so hard," Davis said when asked what he told MSU coach Vic Schaefer following the Bulldogs' 90-45 victory at Humphrey Coliseum. "Thirty-four turnovers doesn't look like we prepared very much, but I have the utmost respect for him."
The effort also drew high praise from Schaefer, who arrived at MSU in 2012 determined to help the program climb the ladder in the Southeastern Conference. After honing his acumen as an assistant and as an associate head coach at Arkansas and Texas A&M -- the latter won the NCAA title in 2011 -- and earning the nickname "Secretary of Defense," Schaefer vowed he would bring an energetic, hard-nosed defensive mentality to Starkville. That attitude was on full display on both ends of the floor in one of the most complete efforts in Schaefer's 34 games as the Bulldogs' coach.
"I am really proud of our kids," Schaefer said. "I thought they played really hard from the jump. I like our energy, I like our effort, I like our press picking up full court and setting a tempo. Sometimes you don't get the steals, but it creates an atmosphere and an energy for our team."
The victory helped MSU improve to 4-0 to start the campaign for the first time since the 2009-10 season. Junior college transfer Savannah Carter scored a career-high 21 points to lead four players in double figures. The 5-foot-9 guard epitomized the Bulldogs' effort by stuffing her stat line. Even though she doesn't consider offense the strong side of her game, Carter was 5 of 8 from the field, including 2 of 2 from 3-point range, and 9 of 12 from the free-throw line. She also grabbed six rebounds -- a number she said wasn't high enough -- handed out two assists and made two steals in 28 minutes.
"All of the time, even when I wake up and am brushing my teeth (with Sensodyne or Crest 3D White toothpaste)," Carter said when asked how often she looks for something to drive her to do better. "I have to find the right toothpaste. It is just a motivational thing for me. Rebounds and defensive stops are my motivation. I can care less about the points."
Kendra Grant followed up her career-high matching 23-point effort against New Orleans with 18 points (6-of-12 shooting from the field). Martha Alwal (17 points, 10 rebounds) added her first double-double of the season, and Breanna Richardson added 12 points. Junior point guard Katia May set a career-high for assists (13) for the second-straight game, while Dominique Dillingham had nine points and eight rebounds.
Davis, who is in his second season at Tennessee Tech, said he isn't sure how MSU will fare in the Southeastern Conference this season because he hasn't seen very many teams less than a month into the 2013-14 season. Still, he believes Schaefer has plenty of pieces that could cause a lot of opponents trouble.
"When the right people shoot the ball for them they are pretty good," Davis said. "When teams can keep their shooters from shooting it, I am not sure they have enough outside shooting. We really felt good, I felt good coming into this game. But they are relentless on the 'O' boards. They are just relentless."
Davis referred a statistic Offensive Efficiency Rating (OER) used by former Tennessee men's basketball coach Ray Mears, who coached Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King. He said MSU is hard to handle because its offensive rebounding allows it to make the most of its possessions and raises its OER. MSU had a 45-26 rebounding edge Thursday night that included 22 offensive rebounds that led to 19 second-chance points. It also had 19 assists against 12 turnovers.
Davis also said the Bulldogs' ability to defend and to hold opponents to a low shooting percentage from the field comes together to make a dangerous combination.
"I think they will be a factor," Davis said.
Schaefer said the compliment from Davis, who spent 18 seasons at Clemson and is in the school's Athletic Hall of Fame, was special to him and means the Bulldogs are focused and working hard to make things happen all over the court. As an example, MSU shot 53.3 percent from the field in the first half and forced 34 turnovers. It has forced 79 turnovers in the past two games.
"I am really pleased with our kids and how hard they are playing," Schaefer said. "I love it when a coach shakes you hand and says, 'Man, Vick, your kids play so hard.' That is the ultimate compliment. It doesn't have anything to do with your jump shot or your skill set. It has everything to do with what is in your breastbone."
Carter is a prime example of the energy level Schaefer demands from his players. Although it is only four games into the season, Carter has said several times that she hears Schaefer's voice inside her head and that motivates her. Her teammates acknowledge she plays at times like she is an Energizer bunny on Red Bull.
"I think she is awesome," Alwal said. "Like Katia said, she makes everyone else work hard. When she is having an off day, we all kind of fall back, too. When she plays great, we are all with her."
Schaefer agrees and calls Carter an "impact" player.
"It doesn't have anything to do with her points," Schaefer said. "She made two threes tonight. That is great. To me, that is gravy. She is so much more than that. It is every day in practice. Those kind of players that can really bring a program to a different level. I saw it with (former Texas A&M center) Danielle Adams from our national championship team. Every day, I don't care what happened that day or that morning. She could have had sour milk on her Wheaties, it wasn't going to ruin her pure joy every day of playing basketball. Savannah is a lot like that. She is tough and plays so hard that I worry about her getting hurt. You have got to love her. She is respectful and is just a wonderful, wonderful kid."
Despite the addition of four new pieces (freshman Chinwe Okorie is hurt and hasn't played), May hasn't been surprised by how quickly things have come together for the Bulldogs. She said the returning players want to forget about last season's 13-17 finish and help the program get back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009, when MSU advanced to its first Sweet Sixteen, which is why they are working so hard. She also credits Carter for helping set the tone.
"When we see Savannah playing hard you automatically play hard, too," May said. "She is just an energizer player. If Savannah is on the ball, everybody is doing their job. If she is running, everybody runs hard. It just affects everybody."
MSU will play host Savannah State at 6 p.m. Tuesday.
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Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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