March 28, 2014 12:42:21 AM
STARKVILLE -- As shooters go, Kendra Grant knows the mantra: The only way to get out of a slump is to keep shooting.
As anyone who has watched the Mississippi State women's basketball team this season can attest, the Bulldogs can look dead in the water in one half and look like a different team the next 20 minutes.
Grant and MSU proved both of those adages Thursday night in one of the Bulldogs' most improbable comebacks of the season.
The junior guard scored 12 of her game-high 20 points in a momentum-changing run in the second half, and MSU weathered the storm at the free throw line down the stretch to beat Auburn 59-54 in the third round of the Women's National Invitation Tournament before a crowd of 1,809 at Humphrey Coliseum.
"Once again, this team doesn't quit," MSU coach Vic Schaefer said. "They are so resilient. To be in that ballgame and to play the way we played for so long, I don't think we really had a good stretch in the first half. To come out in the second half and respond the way they did -- all it takes is somebody like JJ (Jerica James) making a three and Kendra backing it up. It lets everybody relax a little bit."
Martha Alwal had 11 points and 11 rebounds, and James added nine points, three rebounds, a career-high six assists, and two steals to help MSU (22-13) set a program record with its third-consecutive victory in a postseason tournament.
The victory also sets MSU up to play host to South Florida, which defeated George Washington 74-59 on Thursday, at 5 p.m. Sunday in the quarterfinals of the WNIT.
MSU, which lost twice to Auburn in the regular season, forced 26 turnovers, the most in the three games against the Tigers, and committed 23 turnovers, its fewest against the Tigers this season. Even though the disparity was only a few possessions, MSU needed every one to overcome a 14-point second-half deficit and its third-lowest free throw percentage (19 of 33, 57.6 percent) this season.
Auburn led 39-25 on an attacking move to the basket by Brandy Montgomery with 15 minutes, 53 seconds remaining. The Tigers still led 41-30 after Tyrese Tanner (nine of her 11 points in the second half) hit 1 of 2 free throws with 11 minutes left.
That's when MSU caught fire.
The spark came innocently enough after Dominique Dillingham missed a jump shot after she failed to take the basketball all the way to the rim. Grant followed with a jump shot that cut the deficit to 41-34. From there, Humphrey Coliseum became an inferno, as James drained a 3-pointer off an assist from Savannah Carter and Grant followed with another trey off an assist from James. Grant hit 2 of 3 free throws after being fouled attempting a 3-pointer to cut the Tigers' lead to 41-40. She continued her onslaught by hitting a jumper off an assist from James to give MSU a 44-43 lead with 7:18 to go, and then tacked on another 3-pointer to end a 16-2 run that kicked the lead to 46-43.
"It is kind of like you're just playing unconsciously," Grant said. "When I got the ball and I saw I had an open shot I just took it. That is how I should have been playing all year. I guess now that I have gotten into the groove and we are winning still in the tournament I need to keep that focus."
Grant, who was second on the team in scoring last season at 11.8 points per game, has improved her shooting percentage from 32.9 percent to 38.1 percent but has watched her scoring slip to 10.9 ppg, which is still second-best on the team. Her 17 shots Thursday tied the second most she has attempted in a game this season. It was her first 20-point game since she had 20 points Jan. 23 in an overtime loss at Ole Miss.
"We allowed Grant to go off a little bit," Auburn coach Terri Williams-Flournoy said. "Other than that, we really held the players who had been playing well. I thought we did a really good job on some of their go-to players. I thought we just let Grant get loose a little bit. As a shooter, once she started feeling it she was able to continue to hit some big shots."
Schaefer has looked for Grant to provide a spark more often this season. The coaches tweaked Grant's shooting stroke, which Schaefer feels gives her a chance to keep playing for a long time, earlier this season. And while Grant's shooting percentage has improved, her ability to take care of the basketball and to defend consistently have contributed to an up-and-down season.
On Thursday, though, Grant wasn't dwelling on the past or worrying about going 2 of 8 from the field in the first half. She finished 7 of 17 from the field and was 5 of 6 from the free throw line.
James provided the ideal complement to Grant. The junior guard committed only one turnover in 24 crucial minutes to help MSU erase the double-digit deficit and handle Auburn's pressure defense.
"It is like when one person on the team makes a shot, everyone makes a shot," James said. "With Kendra knocking down shots, it felt like I was making the shot. Her energy -- she does the Kendra scream on the court -- after that it is over. We know her head is focused, she is knocking down shots, she is confident, and we can get the job done."
Auburn's 26 turnovers were its most in a game since it had 27 in a loss to Missouri on Feb. 16. It had 25 and 24 in its victories against MSU, but its pressure defense forced 26 and 27 against the Bulldogs in those games. But Auburn shot 8 of 24 (33.3 percent) in the second half after shooting 54.5 percent (12 of 22) in building a 28-19 halftime lead.
"For us to be up that much, we should have kept it going and we didn't," said Tanner, the team's leading scorer (17.2 ppg), who scored only two points in three minutes in the first half after committing two fouls. "We should never have more turnovers than we force. We were pressing them, but we weren't converting and we kept turning it over. If we cut that in half, or three-quarters of it, we would have won the game."
Auburn committed seven turnovers from when it had a double-digit lead to when MSU took the lead. The Bulldogs climbed all the way back by hitting 9 of 14 free throws in the final 2:44. Breanna Richardson hit two free throws for her only points with 1:26 remaining to give MSU its final lead, 56-54. Carter tacked on a free throw and James regrouped from missing two free throws with 29.2 seconds left to make two with 5.1 seconds to go to seal the deal.
The misses and the makes capped a roller coaster ride in which MSU mixed some of its best play with some of its most sluggish. Schaefer has come to expect that from a team that has three freshmen and one junior college transfer playing significant minutes.
"This team is different. They are almost schizophrenic in that they go from one end of the spectrum to the other," Schaefer said. "I told somebody tonight, I have done it 29 years, I don't know that I have ever seen a team that can go from one end of the spectrum to the other -- and fast. It is a credit to them that their confidence doesn't waver. Ours certainly doesn't. Kendra doesn't have a great first half. In the second half, I played her because she has made everything she has looked at for two straight days, and sooner or later she is going to get it. Once she got it tonight, we just got on her back and rode her."
Carter summed it up with a familiar refrain. When asked how much the players felt they were sputtering along and looking for a spark, the junior guard, who spent much of the evening harassing Tanner, used a line she has said before following games. On Thursday, it really hit home.
"We don't get down on ourselves," Carter said. "It is like going back to our very first game at Florida. We were down 19 or 20 and came back and made it a four-point game. We never quit on ourselves."
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Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.