December 14, 2013 10:39:25 PM
STARKVILLE - Southeastern Conference play came early Saturday for the Mississippi State women's basketball team.
In a game that featured the knockout, drag out style of action expected for league games, MSU weathered the disjointed nature of a foul-plagued, first-game-back-from exams effort en route to a 71-61 victory against Southern Mississippi before a crowd of 2,514 at Humphrey Coliseum.
"It was a great basketball game tonight," MSU coach Vic Schaefer said. "My hat is off to Southern Miss and coach (Joye) Lee-McNelis. We probably had three times we could have put it away and got it to 20 and each time they answered and really showed some resilience.
"On the flip side, I really loved the toughness we showed tonight. I thought our kids answered the bell every time. Baby steps for us. We might have been on the other end of that deal last year."
Martha Alwal had 19 points and nine rebounds to lead MSU (10-1). Kendra Grant added 13 points, while Dominique Dillingham added 12 and Breanna Richardson had 11 points and seven rebounds.
The victory helped MSU avenge a 61-59 last-second loss to Southern Miss last season in Hattiesburg.
Tamara Jones paced USM with 27 points, while Jerontay Clemons added 17.
The 71-point showing marked the first time this season MSU has failed to score at least 75 points at home and get the fans a buy-one-get-one free chicken combo at Abner's in Starkville. The herky-jerky nature of the game, which featured a combined 59 fouls did little to help either team establish any kind of rhythm. MSU had 29 of the fouls in the final total, which matched the highest the Bulldogs have had in a game this season.
"In the sense of how physical it was, I would say so (that it was like a SEC game)," Alwal said. "They were really physical the entire game."
Said Grant, "At one point, coach (Schaefer) said it felt like we were up 20 and we were only up 10. I think throughout the whole game it really did feel that way. I guess it showed how much fight they had in them, too. It was very evident in how physical the game was."
Schaefer agreed the intensity of the game was similar to a SEC game. MSU will take lessons from it, especially since it has only three non-conference games left before it opens SEC play at 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 2, at Florida.
"It was a very competitive ballgame at both ends. We needed that," Schaefer said. "I knew it was going to be that way. There are a lot of kids on the other team that are from this state, and they have a lot of pride."
USM (6-2) played the second half without senior point guard Jamierra Faulkner, who was fitted with a sling for her right arm. Still, The Golden Eagles hung around without the nation's leader in assists (10.6 per game) and cut the Bulldogs' lead to 63-56 on a layup by Markia Nix with 4 minutes, 33 seconds remaining. But Dillingham hit 4 of 4 free throws, Alwal converted a layup, and Savannah Carter (nine points, eight rebounds, four assists) hit two more free throws to seal a clinching 8-0 run that kicked the margin to 71-56 with 1:03 left.
"I am proud of our team in the second half," Southern Miss coach Joye Lee-McNelis said. "You tie Mississippi State 29-all without your starting point guard that is truly the heart and soul of your team and you are able to compete with that.
"Congrats to Mississippi State in the first half. They kicked our tail in the first half, bottom line. We got in a rush. We tried to replicate their pressure. That is their key, their full-court pressure defense. They are very good. We tried to replicate that in practice and, obviously, we were not able to do that and they took control of the game in the first half. I think that is where the game was won."
Dillingham epitomized the toughness Schaefer referred to as she came back from a cut to her hairline that drew blood. The contact forced a stoppage of play as game personnel cleaned the blood from the floor. With blood on her No. 00, Dillingham returned to the game wearing No. 25 and remained in attack mode.
"Dominique is bleeding from everywhere," Schaefer said. "They can't find where it starts and where it ends. They finally cleaned her up. I don't know who gave her the spit bath, but somebody got her cleaned up. She comes back in like nothing ever happened. That is why recruited that kid. She is so tough."
The teams exchanged runs and battled through foul problems in the first half. MSU used a 12-0 run to build a 28-14 lead. USM responded with a 10-0 burst to cut the lead to four points. The Bulldogs then used a 14-2 run to push the margin back to 42-26.
USM played the final 8:02 of the first half without leading scorer Jones after she picked up her second personal foul. Jones entered the game leading the Golden Eagles with 19 points per game. She had 16 points in the first 11 minutes.
USM also played the final seven-plus minutes without Faulkner, who appeared to hurt her right elbow after a turnover. Faulkner's absence in the final part of the first half contributed to USM committing 17 turnovers in the first 20 minutes. MSU had 10. The teams combined for 26 fouls in the first half.
MSU will leave Monday for Fargo, N.D., for its game Tuesday against North Dakota State. The game is a trip home of sorts for Alwal, a junior center, who is from Worthington, Minn., which is about three hours from Fargo.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.