February 22, 2014 8:50:03 PM
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Put all of the postseason talk on hold.
With three regular-season games remaining, Mississippi State women's basketball coach Vic Schaefer wants to make sure his team gets back to playing the style that has helped it eclipse last season's win total and become more competitive in the Southeastern Conference.
To take the next step, though, MSU will have to find a way to play smarter, harder, and together for longer stretches if it is going to capitalize on that progress. The next step will come at 2 p.m. today when MSU (17-10, 4-9 SEC) when it plays host to Ole Miss (10-17, 1-12) at Humphrey Coliseum.
"Our inability to really finish off some stretches where we maybe had a run and it should have been a seven-, or eight-, or nine-point run instead of a five-point run (really hurt)," Schaefer said. "It all goes back to dribble penetration. We sent them to the (free throw) line 37 times. There is no excuse.
MSU will try to avenge an 87-85 overtime loss to Ole Miss on Jan. 23 in Oxford. Like in that game, MSU appeared to be in control for much of the evening against Alabama. Unfortunately, MSU wasn't able to deliver the knockout blow when it needed and set itself one or two steps back for everything good thing it did. The Crimson Tide (12-14, 5-8) made the Bulldogs pay by erasing a series of four-, five-, or six-point deficits in the second half by going 7 of 14 from 3-point range and by hitting big shots whenever it needed.
"We know they like shooting the three and there were so many times when they were uncontested," MSU junior center Martha Alwal said. "That was a big part of it. We don't play defense. We don't move our feet. We kept hacking all of the time (a season-high 31 fouls). We kept letting them drive the lane. We didn't talk on defense."
On the other end, MSU struggled with one of its poorest shooting efforts 20 of 61 (32.8 percent) on a night in which it had plenty of good and close looks at the basket.
"We had so many empty possessions in the first half when we didn't get a shot or the shot close was going down," Schaefer said. "Like the poem, it is only one possession. Every kid in (the locker room) I am sure can go back and look at one possession is a difference. We went to overtime. Think about one free throw, one layup, one stick back. It is part of what happens in a game like this."
With games remaining against Kentucky (Thursday at home) and Georgia (next Sunday in Athens, Ga.), MSU likely lost its chance to advance to the NCAA tournament by losing at Alabama. The final three regular-season games will determine if MSU can work its way out of playing on the first day of the SEC tournament on Wednesday, March 5, at The Arena at Gwinnett Center in Duluth, Ga. MSU is tied for 12th place with Arkansas. Ole Miss is last in the 14-team league. The bottom four teams will square off for a chance to advance to play Thursday, March 6.
Last season, MSU lost to Alabama 63-36 on the tournament's opening day to finish a 13-17 season. Schaefer has talked on multiple occasions about how the 2013-14 team has made significant strides in a year. But he said Thursday night the Bulldogs showed their youth and inexperience and it cost them another chance to win a game that could have improved their resume for the postseason. As it stands now, MSU likely will get a chance to play in the National Women's Invitation Tournament. Its success in the final three regular-season games and in the SEC tournament will play a part in determining if MSU gets a chance to play at home in that event.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsporteditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.