March 25, 2014 11:04:50 AM
STARKVILLE -- "Who'd a thunk it?"
After 50 minutes of draining, back-and-forth basketball and another 20 minutes of questions from the media, Vic Schaefer spoke the truest words of the evening.
A year removed from a 13-17 season and through the ups and downs of working three freshmen and a junior college transfer into the mix, Schaefer was asked to ponder the notion that his Mississippi State women's basketball team had just earned the right to play host to its third-straight postseason game.
On a Monday night in which nothing came easily in a 74-66 double-overtime victory against Southern Mississippi in the second round of the Women's National Invitation Tournament, Schaefer contemplated a route that last season included consecutive losses to Winthrop, Cal-Santa Barbara, and Central Florida. MSU also lost to USM in Hattiesburg and suffered embarrassing losses to Vanderbilt, Kentucky, and Texas A&M in the Southeastern Conference. The high of an upset of No. 11 Georgia quickly faded with a loss to Auburn and a crushing defeat to Alabama in the first round of the SEC tournament.
Through it all, Schaefer remained positive. He had to because he knew he had a talented recruiting class that was going to play a key role in the transformation of the program. The rebuilding process had its share of highs and lows this season, too, as three freshmen and a junior college transfer played key roles in keeping the Bulldogs afloat after three crippling overtime losses.
It turns out those losses have only made MSU stronger. How else would you explain it, especially after the Bulldogs survived two missed free throws in regulation and two more in the first OT that could have helped make their night a little shorter and easier. But through all of his pleadings and stops and starts on the sidelines, Schaefer knows there have been times -- like Monday -- when his team is its own worst enemy.
That's why this latest victory was so satisfying, especially gave MSU a chance to play host to Auburn (19-14) at 7 p.m. Thursday in the third round of the WNIT. Auburn beat Old Dominion 82-59 on Monday night. The Tigers defeated the Bulldogs twice in the regular season.
"I have talked about our limitations, and we are still limited," Schaefer said. "I think Southern Miss knew what our limitations were and came out tonight and played to that. That is why it was such a struggle. But, again, 21 victories for this group. I couldn't be prouder. I am not sure it has been harder for me, but when I am done I will look back and I won't know when I have been a part of a more enjoyable team and watched them grow night after night after night.
"It is a special team because of our ineptitude and our inadequacies sometimes. It makes us really unique and special in that we still find a way. Most every night we have found a way to be in the game or win the game."
MSU (21-13) found a way by outscoring Southern Miss (27-7) 9-1 in the second OT. There was no shortage of heroes. Five-foot-five junior guard Jerica James (seven points) had her fifth career block on a shot by Jamierra Faulkner at the end of the first OT to help MSU keep the lead and survive into the second OT.
"In my head I was thinking, 'Jerica, you didn't get back. You're not there,' " James said. "She double-pumped and Katia (May) does it all of the time in practice, so it was taking me someplace I already have been. Once I got the block and got the ball, it was just like excitement all over."
Unfortunately, Savannah Carter missed two free throws with 22.4 seconds to go, which left the door open for USM. Jerontay Clemons then hit 1 of 2 free throws with 7.5 seconds to play to send the game to the second OT.
In the second OT, Martha Alwal (17 points, 15 rebounds, four blocked shots) used just enough body english to hit two free throws to begin the final five minutes. James added a dagger with a 3-pointer from the left wing. Freshman Breanna Richardson (team-high 20 points, seven rebounds, two block) provided the exclamation point with a layup off an assist from James that helped MSU advance.
"There was so much confusion and the clock was going down and they were pounding Martha inside and Breanna wasn't open," James said. "I told myself, 'This is what you do. You have to knock it down.' It felt good going off my fingers."
The crowd of 1,642 at Humphrey Coliseum, which included bands, cheerleading and dance squads from both schools, added to the atmosphere of the second installment of the rivalry this season. On Dec. 14, 2013, MSU defeated USM 71-61, but the Golden Eagles played all but eight minutes of that game without Faulkner, their leading scorer (17.7 points per game) and the nation's leader in assists (8.4 per game). Faulkner (team-high 20 points) proved to be as difficult to handle as advertised, as she had seven rebounds, six assists, and six steals. But the senior point guard, who won the Gillom Trophy as the state of Mississippi's best women's basketball player, also had 11 of her team's 26 turnovers. She also missed her final five shots, including the block by James with less than 30 seconds to go in the first OT and MSU leading 65-64. Alwal also blocked a drive by Faulkner in the second OT with the Bulldogs clinging to a 67-65 advantage.
"They tried to pressure me," Faulkner said. "Me being a smaller person (5-6), they had a bigger guard (Carter, who is 5-9) on me, a more aggressive guard. That made me lose the ball and force a lot of turnovers."
Southern Miss coach Joye-Lee McNelis said Faulkner typically didn't face bigger guards in Conference USA play. Still, she said her team had its chances. The key play in her mind was the charge that James took on Tamara Jones with 4 minutes, 38 seconds to go in the second OT. The foul was the fifth on Jones, USM's best 3-point shooter, and prevented the Golden Eagles from taking the lead.
"When you go back to the overtimes, we had every opportunity, from the free throw line to the drive for the layup, to be able to win the ballgame and we weren't able to finish that play," McNelis said.
MSU capitalized by feeding Alwal, who was fouled. The junior center put the thoughts of two missed free throws with 19.2 seconds left in regulation and the score tied at 55 out of her mind and drained both shots. There was drama, though, as the first one hit the back iron and went high in the air before falling through the net. Alwal traveled with the ball, adding a deep knee bend once the ball had fallen through the hoop.
"I was just really hoping it was going in," Alwal said. "When it did that big old bounce, I thought it was going out. I don't know why I did that (deep-knee bend), but i was hoping it would go in."
After the game, the players offered a "G" rated explanation of Schaefer's halftime talk. Carter said the team took his instructions and knew it had to fight back after shooting 10 of 36 (27.8 percent) in the first half. The percentage was the team's lowest in the first 20 minutes since a 73-35 loss to Texas A&M on Jan. 19. Since then, the Bulldogs have learned to take Schaefer's encouragement and put it into action. The results might not always be fluid, but the Bulldogs have taken pride in playing hard and battling and scrapping for everything they earn this season. On Monday night, the team stayed the course and had a fly swatter that was big enough to finally subdue USM.
"It was like little flies, once you knock one away it keeps coming," James said. "They really played hard. I respect the fact they played hard and didn't quit, just like us. That is the type of team we have to put away. If we want to go to the next level, we have to put those teams away. It shouldn't be at the end of regulation. It should be early on."
Schaefer has learned what appears to be easy isn't the case, especially with a young team. On a night Schaefer said there were times the team "wasn't in it" and "set the game back 20 years in the first half offensively," the Bulldogs found a way when you just thought the Golden Eagles would make them pay.
"You give our kids credit. They hung in there," Schaefer said. "It is overtime No. 5 for us. Lord knows we have been down this road before. We just found a way to win."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.