January 4, 2014 10:24:21 PM
STARKVILLE -- Today is the Mississippi State women's basketball team's next opportunity to throw the first punch.
If it doesn't take advantage of that opportunity, it could find itself in an unenviable situation to start the Southeastern Conference season.
Coming off a loss to Florida on Thursday in its SEC opener, MSU (13-2, 0-1 SEC) will look to bounce back at 2 p.m. today when it plays host to Auburn (9-4, 0-0) at Humphrey Coliseum. WKBB-FM 100.9 will broadcast the game live. The game also will be available to HailStateTV subscribers.
As much as MSU coach Vic Schafer credited Florida (11-3, 1-0) for holding serve on its home court, he was honest in his appraisal of his team's play.
"We played really bad and got beat by 10," Schaefer said Saturday. I am not taking anything away from Florida, but it was our worst game of the year. It was right there with the Middle Tennessee game (a 62-48 loss on Dec. 1 in the title game of the Gulf Coast Showcase)."
Schaefer listed a number of areas MSU came up short. Not only did Florida's combination of January Miller, Jaterra Bonds, and Cassie Peoples (20 of 41 from the field, 53 points) win the game at the guard position, but the Gators also beat the Bulldogs in transition and neutralized junior center Martha Alwal (season-low six points). Alwal's showing marked the third time this season she hasn't scored in double digits.
"We allowed all of that to happen," Schaefer said. "I don't think that happens if we are playing."
Schaefer said the performance against Florida was in direct contrast to MSU's effort against James Madison. In one of the team's best games of the season, MSU shot 52.2 percent in the first half en route to a 13-point lead at intermission. MSU forced 21 turnovers en route to the 65-52 victory.
Against Florida, MSU trailed 40-30 at halftime. The Bulldogs cut the deficit below 10 points at the beginning of the half, but they were unable to make a run despite having multiple opportunities.
"We have to have more fight in us and more of an edge," Schaefer said. "When we played James Madison our kids had an edge to them. They thought they're going to walk into the gym and beat us, and they are a really good team."
Schaefer knows MSU will face another quality team today. Auburn is coming off a 67-54 loss to Minnesota on Dec. 22. On Dec. 21, Auburn defeated UCLA 66-60. It also has wins against St. John's and Tulane. Its losses are to Iowa State, Chattanooga, and Temple.
Senior forward Tyrese Tanner leads Auburn in scoring (16.8 points per game). Junior guard Hasina Muhammad (13.6 ppg.) and freshman guard Brandy Montgomery (11.8) also score in double figures.
Last season, Tanner scored 19 points in Auburn's 74-65 victory on March 3 in Auburn, Ala. That loss cost MSU a higher seed in the SEC tournament due to a tiebreaker and ultimately led to a season-ending loss to Alabama.
"They're probably more athletic and longer than we are and re much bigger in the five spot (center) with 6-foot-3 and 6-4 kids," Schaefer said. "We're going to have our hands full. They like to zone press. That is their calling card, and it is something they are very good at. It is going to be a big challenge. Last year, we turned it over a bunch. Hopefully this year we won't do that."
Schaefer said fighting harder and is a key for MSU to avoiding turnovers. That also is the mind-set MSU needs to have if it is going to be the aggressor and not allow another team to dictate the tempo or the style of play.
"We have smart kids," Schaefer said. "I just think we get caught up in the moment sometimes. We have to play hard, play smart, and play together. If we lose one the other two are nullified."
As for Alwal, Schaefer knows his 6-4 leading scorer (17 ppg. entering the game against Florida) wasn't happy with her game Thursday. He also knows the Bulldogs have to do a better job making their No. 1 option a bigger part of the offense.
"You just hope there is a maturity level that kicks in and she has to realize and to forget the fact she doesn't have anybody pushing you for time or for your position and the fact you're more important to the team," Schaefer said. "That has to be your motivation to be the best every night. If she is going to be neutralized and not be a factor, we're probably not going to win. She knows she didn't play well. She will tell you that."
NOTE: Schaefer expects freshman forward Breanna Richardson to be back with the team today. Richardson left MSU on Friday night to return to Georgia due to a death in the family. Schaefer said Richardson missed the team's practice Saturday.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.