March 1, 2014 6:43:53 PM
STARKVILLE - The rat-a-tat tap of Vic Schaefer's finger and pen echoed throughout the interview room.
If anyone couldn't tell, the persistent tapping from Schaefer's pen on the table in front of him gave a tell-tale sign of an unhappy coach. As much as Schaefer would have liked any one of his players to have made one more play Thursday in an 81-74 overtime loss to No. 12 Kentucky, Schaefer was more disappointed in himself. The second-year Mississippi State women's basketball coach has said several time it is his job to get his team home when it leads down the stretch. Unfortunately, this night was another in a growing list of close calls that went the other way for the Bulldogs.
After a deep sigh, cue the tapping.
"They are all the same. I am disappointed in all of them," Schaefer said when asked if the loss to Kentucky was more disappointing than overtime losses at Ole Miss and at Alabama. "You have got to get these kids home. That is the bottom line. That is my job."
The other side of the bottom line is MSU (18-11, 5-10 Southeastern Conference) has made significant strides since last season when it lost multiple league games by 20 or more points. MSU lost to Kentucky 100-47 and suffered a 51-point loss at Vanderbilt in Schaefer's debut as a head coach in the SEC. A 64-62 upset of then-No. 16 Vanderbilt turned the latter result on its head. MSU also has delivered winnable performances against nationally ranked Tennessee and South Carolina. If you allow for the would-ofs and could-ofs, victories in those games and another win against Ole Miss or Alabama likely would have MSU squarely on the NCAA tournament bubble.
As it stands today, MSU is gearing up for its SEC regular-season finale at noon at Georgia (18-10, 6-9) in 12th place in the league and likely looking at an invitation to the Women's National Invitation Tournament. That isn't anything to dismiss, especially looking at how far the program has come since a 13-17 (5-11 SEC) finish last season. But it begs the question: Where could MSU be going had things turned out differently in a few games?
Schaefer and his players will attempt to put that thought out of their minds today for a pivotal game that could create a wild finish in the league. MSU will need a victory and other results to go its way to forge a five-way tie with Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, and Missouri. If that happens, the tiebreakers would kick in and likely help MSU, which would be 4-1 in those games with a victory today, climb out of 12th and into 10th place and avoid having to play on the first day of the five-day SEC tournament, which starts Wednesday at The Arena at Gwinnett Center in Duluth, Ga.
That thinking will be sorted out later today. First, MSU has business to handle to erase the memory of a stinging loss. The Bulldogs trailed the Wildcats 53-40 with 12 minutes, 16 seconds to go before taking a 59-57 lead on a Breanna Richardson with 4:53 to go. But Kentucky (21-7, 9-6) capitalized on MSU's inability to get a quality shot from the field on its final possession in regulation and to get one more defensive rebound. It also wasted the karma of a day that featured a 3-pointer by Jerica James that hit the front rim and the side rim before falling to give MSU a 66-64 lead with 1:21 remaining.
Those good bounces didn't make Schaefer or any of his players feel good after the game.
"I went 5-for-15, so if I could have made a couple of those shots and finished it could have been a different ballgame," Alwal said.
Richardson was another player who accepted the blame for the loss. The freshman forward cited her 3-of-9 effort from the free throw line as a contributing factor to the loss. MSU also could have pointed to a 51-43 rebounding disparity that saw Kentucky grab 18 offensive rebounds (MSU had 17) and have a 23-14 scoring edge on second-chance points.
Those are statistics that make a coach sigh regardless how many positives he circles on a postgame stat sheet. That's why Schaefer couldn't help but sigh again and commence with another round of tapping when he was asked how his team's competitive play in recent weeks.
"I can sugar-coat this and go we have come so far and this time last year we were just awful and we couldn't compete and here we are now, but these kids are playing good enough to win now," Schaefer said. "It is important we are playing well. We have been playing well all year. With the exception of (Texas) A&M in the second half, we have played pretty well most of the year. We have competed and have been in every game in the biggest, baddest conference in the country, but I am a little irritated with the fact we can't get home in these games. I am not mad at anybody but myself.
"We are playing fairly good. We take plays off. We have freshmen making freshmen mistakes. We are still making some really not smart plays. We fouled a 3-point shooter at least twice today. It is really uncharacteristic of us. We still have a lot of things going on that freshmen do. It is just the way it is. We have some juniors and seniors that are making some not-smart decisions, too, and that is my job as a coach to teach them and to coach them and to make them smart."
Schaefer went on to say his players "deserve to reap the benefits of winning. To do that, though, the Bulldogs need to be able to come up with one more clutch play with a game on the line. One more play has been just out of MSU's grasp in too many SEC games for Schaefer's liking. He hopes his team can bounce back today and earn a season sweep of Georgia. MSU won 80-67 on Feb. 2 in Starkville.
"You have to do the little things," Schaefer said. "You have to execute the little things to beat a great team like Kentucky. We had them tonight. This was our night to win. That team went down to A&M and played really well and beat them. They beat Tennessee at Tennessee. They have some really good wins of late. They are a good basketball team. We should have beat them tonight. ... But they made one more play than we did tonight. That is what it is in the league most nights. It is one more play. That is what it takes to win at this level."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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