March 24, 2014 10:38:51 AM
STARKVILLE -- Savannah Carter is eager for a second chance.
More than three months ago, the Mississippi State junior guard was prepared to do anything she could to help slow down Southern Mississippi senior Jamierra Faulkner. Unfortunately, Carter didn't have much of a chance to see how she matched up against Faulkner because the Golden Eagles' point guard suffered an injury and played only eight minutes in their meeting Dec. 14, 2013, at Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville. Faulkner's absence contributed to USM committing a season-high 28 turnovers in a 71-61 loss. The 61 points is USM's second-lowest point total of the season.
Faulkner is expected to be at 100 percent at 7 tonight when MSU (20-13) plays host to USM (27-6) in the second round of the Women's National Invitation Tournament. MSU coach Vic Schaefer, Carter, and junior center Martha Alwal talked Sunday about how USM having Faulkner, the nation's leader in assists (8.4 per game), would make for an even more intense matchup between the schools that are separated by less than 200 miles.
"Everything goes off Faulkner," Schaefer said. "I think she is the engine that makes them go. You probably aren't going to have one person who is going to be able to deal with her all night. There will be some other people we're going to have to slide in and out on her and give some people a rest. She can stretch you and shoot the three, she is going to make the pass that leads to the shot or she can take you off the bounce and get to the rim. She is playing with a lot of confidence. It is hard to handle good players with confidence."
Carter, who is known as MSU's "Energizer bunny" because she plays with so much energy on defense, leads the team in steals (69) and has relished the opportunity to guard opposing players this season. On Sunday, she referred to the times this season she had to guard Ole Miss point guard Valencia McFarland and how checking Faulkner tonight -- even for only a little bit -- will be a similar test. MSU point guards Katia May and Jerica James also figure to see time guarding Faulkner.
"I am just looking forward to taking this big challenge," Carter said.
MSU is coming off a 77-68 victory against Tulane. The victory helped the Bulldogs reach the 20-win plateau for the first time since the 2009-10 season. Alwal and Carter paced MSU with 15 points apiece to lead five players in double figures.
In the first meeting against USM, MSU held a 21-5 edge in second-chance points and a 27-10 edge in points off turnovers. Schaefer knows those totals will be keys to tonight's game, especially with Faulkner likely to play much more than she did against MSU in December. Against Lamar, USM had 22 fast-break points, a stat that concerns Schaefer.
"We are expecting just like the first time we played them, a knock-down, drag-out (affair)," Schaefer said. "It was a very physical game the first time. Both teams played extremely hard, and we don't expect anything less this time. It should be a heck of a ballgame."
Schaefer said he has seen something "different" in his team the past few practices. He said the Bulldogs have been more attentive to detail, which he hopes will help to continue to push the program in the right direction. A victory tonight would equal the number of victories the 2009-10 team earned en route to the program's first appearance in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. Schaefer hopes all of his players embrace another opportunity tonight to solidify the program as an up-and-comer that is primed to compete in the postseason every year.
Alwal, a first-team All-Southeastern Conference performer and a member of the league's all-defensive team, leads MSU in scoring (15.3 ppg.) and rebounding (8.6). She knows Schaefer expects a big game from her and Carter, and she said she and her teammates are prepared to answer the call.
"If we play the way I know we can play, I think we will be just fine," Alwal said. "The first time we played them, they didn't have Jamierra and it was still a close game. With her, I think it is going to be a different ballgame. It is going to be close, and they are going to ready and they are going to be hungry. They are not scared of us, so they are going to come in here ready to fight us. We have to put the fight right back to them."
USM is coming off a 75-60 victory against Lamar on Thursday in Hattiesburg. Middle Tennessee defeated USM 84-55 on March 15 in the Conference USA tournament championship game to earn the league's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Schaefer said last week and again Sunday he feels USM should have received an at-large bid to the "Big Dance." The numbers support his case. Coach Joye Lee-McNelis' team has tied the program record for wins in a season thanks in large part to Faulkner, the Gillom Trophy winner as the state of Mississippi's best women's basketball player. Faulkner, a first-team All-C-USA pick and a member of the league's all-defensive team, leads the team in scoring (17.4 points per game) and steals (3.0). She is ninth nationally in steals. Freshman Brittanny Dinkins was named to the league's all-freshman team. She is fourth on the team in scoring at 9.0 ppg. Junior forward Tamara Jones is second on the team in scoring (14.5 ppg.) Jones had a game-high 27 points in the first game against MSU.
NOTE: General admission tickets are $6 for adults and $4 for MSU students and youth 18 and under. Fans can purchase tickets at the gate, online at www.hailstate.com/tickets or by calling 1-888-GO-DAWGS. ... The first 100 MSU students in attendance receive free tickets, pizza, and Hail State Hoops gear. ... Fans can listen to the game on WKBB-FM 100.9 and on WXWX-FM 96.3. HailStateTV subscribers can access live video and audio of the game at www.HailState.com/HSTVLive.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.