February 27, 2014 1:08:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- The Mississippi State women's basketball has established an identity.
With a coach whose nickname is "Secretary of Defense," it's natural that the Bulldogs have adopted Vic Schaefer's gritty, hard-nosed approach toward the game. As much as the 2013-14 team has embraced that style of play, it's not too late for the Bulldogs to take another step. Now they just have to find the time to do it.
Taking an upset of then-No. 16 Vanderbilt on Feb. 16 out of the equation, MSU has shot 33.8 percent or lower in each of its past four games. MSU has lost three of those games - South Carolina, Auburn, and Alabama - and won one. MSU beat Ole Miss 72-70 in overtime on Sunday despite shooting 33.8 percent from the field, including 10 of 37 in the final 25 minutes.
MSU (18-10, 5-9 Southeastern Conference) will try to improve that percentage at 7 tonight when it plays host to No. 12 Kentucky (20-7, 8-6) on Senior Night at Humphrey Coliseum. WKBB-FM 100.9 and WFCA-FM 107.9 will broadcast the game live.
MSU will honor seniors Candace Foster and Katia May before the game. Both hope to play key roles in helping MSU pull another upset in its next-to-last regular-season game. MSU's game against Kentucky and Sunday at Georgia are pivotal for a handful of teams. MSU is 11th in the SEC standings because it holds the tiebreaker against Arkansas and Missouri. Those teams play each other on Sunday, so one of them will leap over MSU if it fails to beat Kentucky or Georgia.
The seeding is critical because the bottom four teams will have to play Wednesday in the opening round of the SEC tournament at The Arena at Gwinnett Center in Duluth, Ga. The top four seeds will be off until Friday, while the next six seeds - Nos. 5 through No. 10 - will begin play Thursday. Kentucky, which closes the regular season with a home game against Vanderbilt, is one game ahead of three teams and two games ahead of three more.
MSU will need to improve its shooting percentage if it wants to move up the SEC ladder. Schaefer has been talking for the past few weeks about the importance of his kids getting extra shooting in on their own to help them improve their percentages. Entering tonight's game, MSU is 12th in the SEC in field goal shooting percentage (40.3 percent) and 13th in SEC games in the same category (37.4). Arkansas is last at 35.9 percent, while Kentucky is seventh (40.8).
"I think the next step is one person saying, 'Hey, I'm going (to the gym to do some extra shooting) and you're going with me, or who is going with me?'" Schaefer said. "I think that is where we are."
Junior guard Savannah Carter is one of only five MSU players to shoot 50 percent or better from the field in the past four games, not including Vanderbilt. She echoed Schaefer's sentiment that the Bulldogs have to do more work outside of practice and games to get improve their shooting. She also said MSU has to be patient and work the ball around the perimeter, especially if teams use a zone defense against it, and try to feed the ball inside and work an inside-out game.
Carter admits, though, there isn't a lot of time in the day between classes, practice, conditioning, and study hall to find time to shoot. Even with Monday as an off day, Carter said the players have so much to do that it is a challenge to squeeze extra shooting into the schedule, unless it is at 8 or 9 p.m.
Carter said the Bulldogs went to the gym as a group two or three weeks ago for extra shooting. But with the stretch run here, time is at a premium, so the players have to find a way to make everything work.
Carter said Tuesday she came in a few days earlier to do extra shooting. She said she also planned to come in for additional shooting Monday, but she couldn't because she had to study for a French test.
Carter credits assistant coach Aqua Franklin for encouraging her to shoot. She said she has listened to the former Texas A&M guard and has seen positive results.
"She gets on me all of the time and says, 'Just let it go,'" Carter said. "When she says that, I just let it go and the ball just seems to go in, and I think that has really improved my confidence level."
Schaefer said Ole Miss was giving his team perimeter shots in an attempt to collapse on junior center Martha Alwal in the post. At 6-foot-4, Alwal is one of the tallest players in the league. The past two games she has scored 18 and 25 points, which matches her career high, so it is safe to assume teams from here on out will try to take her away from the Bulldogs.
To combat those defenses, Schaefer said players will have to step up and hit open jump shots to keep the defenses honest. With a game Sunday at Georgia, at least one game next week in the SEC tournament, and at least one game in a postseason tournament, MSU still has time to improve those numbers. That's why Schaefer said it isn't too late for his players to seize an opportunity to work on their foul line jumpers or their stroke from beyond the 3-point arc.
"When they can't make a free throw jump shot, it really affects our team and it hurts our chances to win," Schaefer said. "Then it becomes how much do you care. I think our kids care, but sometimes you have to be whopped in the face before you really understand. We were lucky to win Sunday, and sometimes that needs to be your opportunity and learn from that instead of a loss."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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