February 20, 2014 10:05:45 AM
Don't mention the future to Vic Schaefer.
The Mississippi State women's basketball coach knows his team likely has secured some kind of postseason opportunity following the Southeastern Conference tournament. What acronym the Bulldogs find themselves playing in remains to be seen. That's why Schaefer wants his team's focus squarely on Alabama at 7 tonight when the teams meet at Foster Auditorium. WKBB-FM 100.9 in Tupelo and WXWX-FM 96.3 will broadcast the game. It also will be available via HailStateTV subscription at www.HailState.com/HSTVLive.
The game is crucial is a number of ways for MSU (17-9, 4-8 Southeastern Conference). Not only does MSU wants to build on the momentum from its 64-62 victory against then-No. 16 Vanderbilt on Sunday, but it also wants to beat Alabama (11-14, 4-8) to improve its resume and earn another all-important tiebreaker. MSU is tied with Alabama, Arkansas, and Missouri for 10th place in the SEC. The Bulldogs own tiebreakers against the Razorbacks and the Tigers, so a victory against the Crimson Tide could keep MSU out of the dreaded first day of the SEC tournament on Wednesday, March 5, if it is tied with any of those teams at the end of the regular season.
"We have to continue to grow and mature and get better," Schaefer said. "That is the challenge. The season is far from over. We can't bask in one victory against Vanderbilt. We have to get ready to play Alabama. We have to have an understanding that if we don't bring it every day and every night in this league we are going to get embarrassed."
With SEC games remaining against Ole Miss (Sunday), Kentucky (next Thursday), and at Georgia (next Sunday), MSU also has a chance to climb even higher in the regular-season standings, which could improve their chances to earn a bid to the NCAA tournament. If the Bulldogs fail to earn a bid to the NCAA tournament -- they last advanced there in the 2009-10 season -- they likely will get a chance to play in the Women's National Invitation Tournament. MSU last played in that event in the 2007-08 season.
All of that is speculation to Schaefer, who wants his team to play hard and to compete regardless of the opponent. To highlight that point, Schaefer referenced an example from last season. MSU earned one of its best victories of the 2012-13 season in a 50-38 win against then-No. 11 Georgia at Humphrey Coliseum. It was unable to build on that momentum in a loss to Auburn in the regular-season finale. It then suffered an embarrassing 63-36 loss to Alabama in its first game of the SEC tournament. MSU defeated Alabama 75-51 four games earlier in the regular season, so Schaefer hopes his players know nothing is guaranteed, especially in the SEC.
"This game is important because it is the next one in the SEC," Schaefer said. "We have been playing well for a while and we have won some and lost some. We certainly are playing at a pretty high level in the best conference in the country. For us, it is the next game. Just like at (Texas) A&M (and his first game back to College Station, Texas, since he was a coach), people wanted to make it bigger than it was. For us, it is the next game, it is on the road, it is against a much-improved, well-coached team. They are playing with confidence and playing well at home, so we have to be ready."
Things will be even more different considering veteran coach Kristy Curry has the Crimson Tide playing competitively in her first year as head coach of the program. Alabama won at nationally ranked Kentucky and, like MSU, played nationally ranked Tennessee close at home before losing.
Alabama is coming off a 71-46 loss to Texas A&M on Sunday. Shafontaye Myers leads the team in scoring at 14.0 points per game, while Daisha Simmons and Ashley Williams follow at 13.2 and 11.8, respectively.
"We are taking two seniors (Katia May and Candace Foster) on their last trip to Alabama, and we have one kid (May) who is from there," Schaefer said. "We all want to win it for her as much as for each other. I think this team has great chemistry and a really solid bond as a unit. I think we're trying to compete night in and night out and play with chemistry and see where the chips fall. We're going to control what we control, and that is playing our hearts out, playing together, and playing smart."
Schaefer praised his team for its toughness Sunday in upsetting Vanderbilt. Martha Alwal led the way with 23 points, including the game-winning basket with 3.3 seconds remaining. As competitive as the Bulldogs have been, though, Schaefer knows things could change quickly if his team isn't focused or takes an opponent too lightly. He hopes his team doesn't have to learn that lesson again this season.
"I think it is still a work in progress," Schaefer said. "I think our kids have an understanding of what we as a staff want day in and day out, night in and night out. At the end of the day, I certainly feel we're facing in the right direction and making strides. Like I have said all year, I want to see us get better every week, and we have done that for the most part. This league will humble you from one to 14. If you're not ready to play it will be a humbling experience."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.