March 19, 2014 10:00:48 AM
This is the first step.
As much as Mississippi State women's basketball coach Vic Schaefer would like to point to a victory against No. 11 Georgia last season or a win against Vanderbilt at home this season, the announcement late Monday night that MSU (19-13) had received a bid to the Women's National Invitation Tournament was the first tangible sign of progress for Schaefer in his second season as the head coach of the program.
The bid, one of 32 at-large berths to the 64 team-field, validated the maturation of a program that suffered overtime losses to Ole Miss, Alabama, and Kentucky that erased its chances for competing for a spot in the NCAA tournament. MSU also showed its mettle by playing nationally ranked Tennessee, the Southeastern Conference tournament champion, and South Carolina, the SEC regular-season champion, tough in losses in Starkville.
You could still hear a tinge of disappointment in Schaefer's voice Monday night when he talked about what could have happened if the Bulldogs had found a way to finish a few more games. The what ifs are part of the magic of March Madness. Should SMU have received a berth to the men's Division I tournament? Did Louisville deserve a higher seed than No. 4? Would the MSU women have returned to the NCAA tournament if they didn't commit a turnover on an inbounds pass against Alabama or commit a foul on an offensive rebound in the waning seconds of regulation against Kentucky?
Those are questions to reflect on in the years to come after Schaefer has built a perennial SEC contender and an annual participant in the NCAA tournament. With a top-20 recruiting class that features Scott Central High School standout Victoria Vivians, that is where MSU is going, and now is the time for the Bulldogs to begin to forge their path and for fans to get on board.
On paper, MSU has plenty of motivation to make a deep run in the WNIT. It will open its road at 7 p.m. Thursday against Conference USA member Tulane (20-10) at Humphrey Coliseum. Tickets for the game are $6 for adults and $4 for students. Schaefer didn't hesitate Monday to mention Tulane has defeated his team in closed-door scrimmages the past two years. The results weren't a secret, but you almost had the feeling Schaefer was putting that out there to motivate his players and to challenge them to rise to the occasion.
A packed house at The Hump also would help MSU respond against a program that has advanced to the postseason the past five seasons, including trips to the WNIT the past four seasons. The size of the crowd in Starkville -- and in Hattiesburg on Thursday for Southern Miss' game against Lamar -- will be factors that will help the NCAA decide which program will get an opportunity to play host to a potential second-round matchup. MSU defeated Southern Miss 71-61 on Dec. 14, 2013, in Starkville. USM senior point guard Jamierra Faulkner didn't score and played only eight minutes after being fitted with a sling for her right arm in the first half. Faulkner, who edged MSU junior center Martha Alwal for the Gillom Trophy, which goes to the state's top women's basketball player, leads USM in scoring (17.7 points per game) and leads the nation in assists (8.5 per game).
On Tuesday, The Associated Press named Alwal first-team All-SEC. The honor comes two weeks after she earned first-team All-SEC laurels from league coaches and was named co-defensive player of the year and to the all-defensive team. Alwal, who won the Gillom Trophy in 2013, is averaging a career-best 15.3 ppg., 8.7 rebounds per game, and 2.6 blocked shots per game. She is the 20th MSU player to record 1,000 career points (1,015).
A possible MSU-Southern Miss game won't come down to a matchup between Alwal and Faulkner, but a victory would be a great way for the Bulldogs to show why they believe they are the state's top Division I program.
If the motivation from a first postseason appearance since 2010 and a possible matchup against a state rivalry isn't enough, MSU could face Auburn, a team it lost to twice in the regular season. Enough said.
Now it's up to MSU to take care of business. The Bulldogs can't be satisfied with the progress they made this season or the "morale victories" in playing the SEC's best teams tough. They also can't fall into the trap of waiting until next year to make their move. This should be a time for seniors Katia May and Candace Foster to speak up and to help the team make one more play to get it a victory. This should be a time for juniors Alwal, Kendra Grant, Savannah Carter, and Jerica James to play within themselves and to deliver the production and leadership Schaefer has wanted from them all season.
It also is a time for the fans to get behind MSU. On Tuesday, USM announced Coca-Cola was the donor that purchased 1,000 student tickets for the men's basketball team's game against Toledo in the opening round of the NIT at Reed Green Coliseum. Imagine if a business in the Greater Golden Triangle stepped up and did the same thing for MSU.
This is a program on the cusp of making a statement. With the MSU and Ole Miss men's basketball teams done for the season and the MSU baseball team off until this weekend, the MSU women's basketball team has center stage. It's time for the Bulldogs to show they are ready to handle the spotlight and to make a first step that keep the program going in the right direction.
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. He can be reached at: aminichino@cdispatch. Follow him on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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