February 17, 2014 1:33:34 PM
STARKVILLE -- Sunday wasn't a restful day for Martha Alwal
It's bad enough the junior center had to deal with the lingering effects of an illness that had bothered her for the past few days. To make matters worse, Alwal had to deal with an undersized group of post players from Vanderbilt who poked, pushed, and hip checked her nearly every time she dared to go near the lane.
But Alwal didn't allow an afternoon of body blows to prevent her from going into the paint one more time to produce game-changing results for the Mississippi State women's basketball team.
Alwal's layup off a pass from Katia May with 3.3 seconds remaining lifted MSU to a 64-62 victory against No. 16 Vanderbilt before a crowd of 2,354 at Humphrey Coliseum.
Alwal scored 14 of MSU's final 21 points and finished with a game-high 23 to go along with six rebounds and two blocked shots to help MSU improve to 17-9 and 4-8 in the Southeastern Conference.
"I just tried to score and be tough in there," said Alwal, whose point total matched her career-high for a SEC game. "That is all that was going through my mind."
A jump shot by Christina Foggie (team-high 15 points) tied the game at 62 with 15.5 seconds remaining. MSU called a timeout designed to make something happen quickly against a half-court defense. Dominique Dillingham inbounded the ball to May, who attacked a gap at the top of the defense. The senior point guard, who had six assists in 22 minutes due to foul trouble, read the help defender cutting off her path and slipped a pass to her right to Alwal on the baseline. The 6-foot-4 Alwal took the pass and leaned in for a shot just outside the low block. Her soft touch allowed the ball to knock around the rim and hang on the front edge before it fell home.
"I was just hoping," said Alwal, who had her sixth 20-plus point effort of the season. "I was looking at it and I was like, 'Please go in,' and it did, so I am pretty happy."
Breanna Richardson intercepted the ensuing inbounds pass and was one of a handful of players involved in a scrum near midcourt as time expired.
Alwal's performance helped MSU erase a first half Schaefer called "miserable." The Bulldogs shot 7 of 23 from the field (30.4 percent) and trailed 28-21 after 20 minutes. The 21 points matched a season-low allowed by Vanderbilt in a first half. But Alwal, who was 1 of 4 from the field in the first half, was 7 of 11 in the final 20 minutes. Her productivity sparked MSU to a 15-of-25 shooting performance (60 percent) in the second half, which was the team's highest mark of the season.
"I am super proud of our kids," MSU coach Vic Schaefer said. "I just love how competitive they have become and how they fought in the second half. ... We came out in the second half and I thought we threw the first punch. I thought Bre(anna Richardson) was sensational coming out of the locker room. Down the stretch Martha scores 14 of the last 21 and was just incredible. She put us on her back."
Richardson (16 points) helped set the tone by scoring on two aggressive drives to the basket in the first 2 minutes, 43 seconds of the second half. The second epitomized the Bulldogs' change in demeanor, as she pushed through the defense of Jasmine Jenkins and finished at the rim off an inbounds pass.
Junior point guard Jerica James (nine points, two assists, four steals) also hit two crucial 3-pointers in the second half to keep MSU close. After the game, Schaefer complimented the play of May and James for the team's improvement from last season, when it finished 13-17 and 5-11 in the SEC.
Vanderbilt (17-8, 6-6) lost its third-straight game, and fourth in its last five. The Commodores relied on a trio of post players -- Heather Bowe, Marqu'es Webb, and Rayte'a Long -- to try to keep Alwal from getting touches. Unfortunately, Vanderbilt's lack of size (Webb is the team's tallest active player at 6-1) made it difficult for it to combat Alwal, especially when MSU remained focused on getting her the basketball. The Commodores also played without freshman guard Rebekah Dahlman, who is recovering from blood clots. She started the first nine games of the season and averaged 11.4 points per game.
Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb lamented her team's inability to keep the Bulldogs in front of them and deny Alwal the ball. Both factors negated an effort in which Vanderbilt shot 13 of 21 (61.9 percent) in the second half and 23 of 41 (56.1) for the game. It marked the fourth time this season and opponent has shot 50 percent or better against MSU, and the highest percentage in a SEC game.
Unfortunately, Vanderbilt committed 26 turnovers and MSU had 15 steals, which was tied for second-most this season, and the most in a SEC game. The 26 turnovers tied for third most in a game this season, and were the most in a SEC game. It also was the highest total forced by MSU in a SEC game.
Balcomb said the Commodores wanted to pressure the basketball and get in front of Alwal. She said she knew the Bulldogs were going inside, but they couldn't stop it, and they haven't been able to stop opponents from controlling the paint for the past five games.
"(Alwal) is one of the most improved players I have seen in this conference," Balcomb said. "She used to be just a very stationary kid that didn't like contact and wherever she caught the ball she would shoot it from. She has gotten much more aggressive, handles physical play better."
MSU erased a six-point deficit and took a 50-49 lead on 1 of 2 free throws by Dillingham with 7:16 left. Jasmine Lister (13 points, five assists) answered five seconds later to give the Commodores their last lead. Alwal's layup off an assist from May gave MSU the lead for good, 52-51, with 6:44 to go. MSU had its share of big plays by players other than Alwal down the stretch. May had two steals, including one she took in for a layup with 2:14 to go that gave MSU a 60-58 lead.
"Where we win the game is we force 26 turnovers. That is 52 points they don't have a chance to score," Schaefer said. "We're not doing that standing around in a 2-3 zone. They are playing their hearts out and are really laying it on the line trying to do the best they can. Lord knows we're not doing a lot of things right, but it isn't because we're not trying most of the time."
MSU will play at 7 p.m. Thursday at Alabama.
n Women's basketball team loses to No. 14 Texas A&M: At Tuscaloosa, Ala., Karla Gilbert scored 15 points on 6-for-10 shooting to help No. 14 Texas A&M rout Alabama 71-46.
Courtney Williams and Courtney Walker added 12 points apiece for the Aggies (20-6, 10-2 SEC), who shot 53 percent from the field to secure the program's ninth-straight 20-win season. Jordan Jones scored six points and dished out 10 assists.
Texas A&M took control early with a 17-3 run capped by a Curtyce Knox layup that made it 25-12 with 6:23 to go in the first period, and carried a 37-22 advantage into the break. The Aggies continued to pull away in the second half.
Alabama (11-14, 4-8) led briefly after a three-point play by Nikki Hegstetter that made it 9-8 early in the first half but then quickly fell behind.
Ashley Williams led the Crimson Tide with 19 points and nine rebounds, while Daisha Simmons added 10 points.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Reports from The Associated Press were included in this report.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.