March 26, 2014 10:30:57 PM
STARKVILLE -- The signs of growth are everywhere.
From the record, to the date on the calendar, to the fact that basketballs are still bouncing in Humphrey Coliseum in preparation for games.
Regardless which of those or any of countless other examples you select, it is undeniable the Mississippi State women's basketball team has made progress this season in Vic Schaefer's second season in charge of the program.
The most visible reflection of that progress is MSU's eight-win improvement from the 2012-13 season that has Schaefer's team at 21-13 as it prepares to play host to Auburn (19-14) at 7 tonight in the third round of the Women's National Invitation Tournament at The Hump.
A year ago, Schaefer and his coaching staff already were planning for the 2013-14 season. The basketballs had been packed up and Schaefer was still smarting from an embarrassing loss to Alabama in the opening round of the Southeastern Conference tournament.
This season, Schaefer is still dancing on the sidelines, exhorting his players and the officials to do better. Off the court, he is relishing every opportunity he gets to say "Hail State" because he knows each one is another day the Bulldogs get to grow in the 2013-14 season.
"It is exciting. It is an exciting time for us at Mississippi State," Schaefer said. "We are looking forward to another great challenge (against Auburn). They have done a good job against us twice."
Individually, Martha Alwal, Kendra Grant, Sherise Williams, Katia May, and Jerica James have significantly increased their shooting percentages from last season. More importantly, May and James, the team's point guards, have helped MSU increase its scoring from 55.2 points per game to 71.6 ppg. They have done that by helping the Bulldogs get more than 100 more assists than turnovers (488-386). Last year, MSU had 334 assists and 366 turnovers. Brittany Young was the only player on the 2012-13 squad who had more assists than turnovers.
As a team, MSU is shooting 40 percent from the field, which also is a huge improvement from last season (36.4 percent).
On Wednesday, junior college transfer Savannah Carter and freshman Breanna Richardson said "leadership" and "maturity" have been two areas of individual and team growth this season. The leadership has been crucial because the Bulldogs have learned how the blend the talents of the returning players and newcomers like Carter, Richardson, and freshmen Dominique Dillingham and Ketara Chapel. The maturity has been equally important because MSU has had to fight through three overtime losses and the adjustment period of adapting to life in the SEC, which has five teams still alive in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA.
"I learn every day how to be a leader and when to be a leader," Carter said. "Even at the wrong time, somebody has to step up, and our coaches get on the whole team about that.
"Our freshmen have stepped up tremendously. It has been great to see how they have grown from individuals in the summertime to now. It is crazy to see (Breanna) named to the SEC all-freshman team and Dom(inique) be named SEC Player of the Week, and Breanna as well. It has been great to see them grow."
The growth is still happening, which helps explain why the Bulldogs are still playing. In a 74-66 double-overtime victory against Southern Mississippi, Schaefer was at times equally frustrated and elated with his team. In one instance, Schaefer threw his hands up after Richardson, who led the team with 20 points, settled for a 17-foot jump shot that missed. Schaefer didn't shout or remove Richardson from the game. He simply put his hands down and sat down on the bench.
On Wednesday, Schaefer smiled when asked about the play and said Richardson realized she "settled" for the shot that the Golden Eagles wanted her to take. He said he would rather see Richardson attack the basket to draw a foul or to create a better scoring chance. He has seen flashes of that from his freshman forward, and he knows he will see even more of it in the future.
"Bre's top end is nowhere in sight. She is going to be unbelievable if she will keep working at it, and she will," Schaefer said.
Richardson has scored in double figures 17 times this season. She has rotated with Chapel in the two front-court spots and has learned the true meaning of "physical" when it comes to playing in the SEC. She said her ability to buy into Schaefer's offensive and defensive schemes has been her biggest adjustment. She agreed with Carter that "Maturity" and "composure" have been the team's biggest areas of growth, even if she admits she hasn't stepped up as much as she "should" have, as she put it.
"Coach has always said leadership doesn't have to be an older individual. It can be one of us freshmen," Richardson said. "If the time is right, I could step up, I should be stepping up."
That moment might be tonight, when MSU goes for a first: It's third-consecutive victory in a postseason tournament. MSU won two games in the NCAA tournament in 2010 to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time in program history. Playing at home against a team it has lost to twice this season should help, especially after a grind-it-out victory that showcased the resiliency that is another sign of the growth in the Bulldogs and the team. Schaefer hopes the team can use that growth as motivation to go deeper into the WNIT and set the bar even higher for next season.
"I think our returners understand what is coming (in a recruiting class that includes Scott Central's Victoria Vivians). We have five great ones and then we have Chinwe (Okorie, who is redshirting)," Schaefer said. "(The freshmen) are smart players, and they know what their limitations are and what their weaknesses are, and they will keep hearing it from me. Sometimes you have to get uncomfortable to reach your full potential. We'll keep making them uncomfortable with their limitations. ... With these kids, they will get in there and work on those things and get better."
NOTE: The first 250 MSU students will be admitted free and will get free pizza. ... The game can be heard live on WKBB-FM 100.9 and WXWX-FM 96.3. It also will be available on www.HailState.com/HSTVLive.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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