February 15, 2014 11:27:21 PM
STARKVILLE -- The Mississippi State women's basketball team has established its identity.
Coach Vic Schaefer's Bulldogs also have earned the respect of their Southeastern Conference peers.
Now it's time for MSU to fine-tune its performance to turn its share of close calls its way down the stretch.
"At some point, I don't know when that point is, you have to start winning some of these games against these ranked teams," Schaefer said. "We have certainly been in those ballgames, with the exception of the second half against A&M. It is a process. I have to remind myself all the time because I want to get ahead of the process and you can't. It is baby steps."
MSU will try to make that happen at 1 p.m. today (My Mississippi) when it plays host to No. 16 Vanderbilt in its annual "Think Pink" game at Humphrey Coliseum. MSU will give away 500 pink T-shirts in its effort to raise awareness about breast cancer.
MSU (16-9, 3-8 Southeastern Conference), which is coming off a bye, is tied with Missouri for 12th place in the SEC standings with five games to go in the regular season. While the Bulldogs already have eclipsed their win total from last season (13) in Schaefer's first season as head coach of the program, they very easily could have even more. Seven of MSU's losses in the league have come by 10 or less points. The only blowout was a 73-35 loss on Jan. 19 at Texas A&M. That run is in contrast to last season, when MSU had more than its share of big losses in the SEC. One of them came to Vanderbilt (92-41) on Jan. 3, 2013, in Nashville, Tenn.
This season, though, MSU has nearly pulled upsets of nationally ranked teams like Tennessee (67-63) and South Carolina (71-64) and has played Florida tough on the road and Auburn to close games in both of its losses. Unfortunately, MSU has been unable to parlay its toughness and intensity on defense into enough results. The last example came Sunday in a 51-43 at Auburn. MSU committed 27 turnovers and couldn't hold an eight-point halftime lead.
Schaefer reiterated that it is a "process" for his team to climb into the upper echelon of the SEC. A recruiting class that features Scott Central High School standout Victoria Vivians, the state's all-time leading scorer, has heightened expectations for the program. But Schafer knows he can't speed up the Bulldogs' evolution, especially with three freshmen -- Ketara Chapel, Dominique Dillingham, and Breanna Richardson -- and a junior college transfer -- Savannah Carter -- playing significant minutes.
"At this time last year we were celebrating the little victories in the huge losses," Schaefer said. We would have to celebrate somebody running a play right or running an out of bounds play right or somebody rotating once in a blue moon for a charge. Now we're past that and to the point we're competitive, we're in these games. At some point, we have to put 40 minutes together and beat some of these teams, and we have. We beat Arkansas, who was No. 25 this year. We have to get to that next step where we are winning these games that we are in."
Schaefer knows the time for his team to change its fortunes is now with games against Alabama and Ole Miss included in the last stretch. Victories in those two games and against Kentucky or Georgia would improve MSU's chances of climbing out of the final four places in the league standings and avoiding a game on the first day of the SEC tournament.
Last year, MSU lost its regular-season finale to Auburn, which cost it a tiebreaker and forced it into a matchup against Alabama on the opening day of the SEC tournament. Alabama routed MSU 63-35 in one of the Bulldogs' disappointing efforts of the season. That game came two games after the program's signature victory -- a 50-38 win against No. 11 Georgia at Humphrey Coliseum.
This season, Schaefer said inconsistency is going to be a factor because MSU is playing three freshmen. Still, he feels this year's team likely is ahead of the pace he and associate head coach Johnnie Harris were a part of when they were members of coach Gary Blair's rebuilding effort at Texas A&M. After winning 10 games in the first season, the Aggies advanced to the postseason and won three games in the National Women's Invitation Tournament. The following season, the process continued with a bid to the NCAA tournament. Two years later, Texas A&M won a national championship.
"I am pleased with our progress," Schaefer said. "You hate not winning these close games. If you're a competitor, you want to win them. Most people would tell you who have been around long enough would tell you, 'Vic, you're not ready to win them.' I disagree and say we are. We have to find a way to win. That is why Scott hired me and that is why I am paid what I am paid, and I have to get these kids home."
Vanderbilt (17-7, 6-5) has lost four of its last five games. Today will be the Commodores' third game in seven days. Vanderbilt lost to Tennessee 81-53 on Monday and at home to Auburn 68-62 on Thursday.
Senior guard Christina Foggie leads the SEC in scoring (19.4 points per game). Senior point guard Jasmine Lister (14.9 ppg.) also averages double figures for a team that is 12th in the nation in field goal percentage (46.5 percent).
NOTE: Due to a conflict with the MSU baseball team's game against West Carolina, today's game will be broadcast on WMXU-FM 106.1. It also will be available to HailStateTV subscribers at www.hailstate.com/hstvlive.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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