March 31, 2014 10:25:26 AM
STARKVILLE -- One turn.
It sounds simple. If Kendra Grant had it to do over again, she would have tried to get in front of Courtney Williams in an effort to steer her clear of the right wing.
You might think 4.2 seconds is a lot of time to hit a game-winning shot, but try to hit a pull-up jump shot off a full sprint with a hand in your face and more than 3,000 fans screaming at you.
As easy as it looked to get Williams to make one turn and as difficult as the final shot looked, the South Florida guard handled both with aplomb Sunday night to end the Mississippi State women's basketball team's season.
Williams' 3-pointer over Grant's outstretched hand just before time expired lifted USF to a 60-58 victory against MSU in the quarterfinals of the Women's National Invitation Tournament before a crowd of 3,006 at Humphrey Coliseum.
"Coach drew up the play where I circled around, and he just told me, 'You have four seconds to score,' " Williams said. "I took the four seconds and I did my best."
USF (23-12) advances to face the winner of tonight's game between Rutgers and Bowling Green at a time and a date to be determined. MSU sees its first trip to the postseason since the 2009-10 season end at 22-14.
Williams, a 5-foot-8 sophomore, scored 13 points in 25 minutes due to foul trouble. USF coach Jose Fernandez said there was no doubt USF's leading scorer (16.3 points per game), who shoots 24.5 percent from 3-point range, was going to take the last shot. Alisia Jenkins started to the right of the basket to inbound the basketball. She moved to her left and waited as Shalethia Stringfield worked off a screen and was trailed by MSU's Savannah Carter. Williams then worked off a screen, caught the pass at foul line extended, and used four dribbles to speed up the court. By the time Williams used her final dribble to gather her feet, Grant, who is 5-10, had caught up to her and was in her face. But Williams elevated over Grant and absorbed the contact on her shooting hand to drain her only trey of the evening.
"She was right there," Williams said of Grant. "I think I kind of felt her nudge my arm a little bit.
"I knew I had to score or we were going to lose, so I had to be confident."
Moments earlier, MSU had battled back from a seven-point deficit to take a 58-57 lead. With the shot clock running down, point guard Jerica James penetrated on the right wing, drew the defense, and slipped a pass to Martha Alwal (five points, eight rebounds) for a layup with 4.2 seconds to go.
"Just like we have talked about down the stretch, we don't want to settle and we really want to try to get a train wreck," MSU coach Vic Schaefer said. "JJ made a great play. She made a great read. The kid came off and helped and we talked about it. If that kid helps off Martha, find Martha. Boy, what a great play."
USF inbounded the ball and managed a rushed 3-pointer as time expired, which missed, that sent the crowd into a frenzy. But the Bulls had called timeout, so the officials went to the video monitor to see how much time they had to put back on the clock. Fernandez said the Bulls wanted to run misdirection to get the ball to Williams.
"We brought our point guard as a decoy on a little circle and we had Inga (Orekhova) flare out so it would open the whole right side of the floor, and that is what it did for Courtney," Fernandez said. "She got a good look and the ball went in. I know it is a tough way to lose, but we should have done a much better job on the other end when State got that last basket. We didn't cover down on the backside block."
Grant, who scored a game-high 22 points, said MSU didn't want USF to throw a long baseball pass when it inbounded the ball from under the Bulldogs' basket. With Williams, Orekhova, and Stringfield in the game, the Bulls had three long-range shooters the Bulldogs had to cover.
"I was just trying to stay beside her and she curled off the double (screen)," Grant said. "I tried to keep her in front of me and didn't turn her like I should have."
Grant proved to be equally challenging to guard. The junior guard, who had a team-high 20 points in MSU's 59-54 victory against Auburn in the third round of the WNIT, had eight points in the final 3 minutes, 55 seconds to help the Bulldogs rally from a 53-46 deficit. She was 8 of 14 from the field and 6 of 7 from the free throw line in 18 minutes. Her eight field goals tied for her second most in a game this season.
"Kendra Grant was very tough to guard, especially down the stretch," Fernandez said. "We went no catch on her and she was just elevating and shooting right over us."
Grant's three-point play with 8:51 left helped MSU match its biggest lead, 40-36, of the second half. The Bulls responded with a 12-0 run that turned the tide. MSU had its share of misses, including two airballs, and turnovers in that span, while USF scored six or its points on layups. Stringfield had five of her team-high 20 points in the run. The sophomore guard had a career-high scoring game -- and only her fourth double-digit scoring effort of the season -- in 35 minutes, her longest outing since a loss to Florida Gulf Coast on Dec. 4, 2013.
In addition to Williams battling through foul trouble, Orekhova had four fouls, although she played 37 minutes. But Orekhova, a 6-2 senior guard, hit a jump shot in the lane after she worked Carter off a screen and then hit a step-back 3-pointer -- again off a screen -- to help fuel the Bulls' charge. Senior center Akila McDonald didn't score and had three rebounds in 14 minutes. She entered the game averaging 6.6 points and 5.8 rebounds.
"I knew we had a couple of people in foul trouble," Stringfield said. "I didn't want my team to go down with a loss because I just want to take them the whole way.
"I think I was more aggressive this game taking the ball to the basket."
Said Schaefer, "We just didn't have anybody who could guard her. She fouled Katia out. JJ couldn't hold her."
After shooting 26.7 percent shooting (8 of 30) from the field in the first half, USF went 15 of 28 (53.6 percent) in the second half. But MSU, which was 20 of 62 (32.3 percent) from the field, stayed in the game by forcing 14 turnovers, including two in the final two minutes that helped it take the lead.
"I think they were just tough," Williams said. "They were staying on us. They reminded me of (American Athletic Conference rival) Rutgers because they play so physical. It was just a matter of us keeping our heads up and not losing our composure."
Fernandez said Williams was disappointed she got into foul trouble and didn't play a bigger role earlier in the game. He said Williams is the type of player who "wants the ball in her hands," and he was glad to see her hit the shot to keep the Bulls' season alive, even if it meant ending the Bulldogs' hopes.
"It's a shame one of these two teams has to finish out their season because I thought both teams left everything on the floor," Fernandez said. "I think Vic has done a remarkable job getting Mississippi State basketball back on the map. I told him after the game we have played some pretty good defensive teams all year and we struggled to get open. We struggled to come off screens. State did a good a job as anybody."
The loss ended MSU's first three-game postseason winning streak and its fifth 20-plus win season. The 22 victories is the fourth most in program history. With a nationally ranked recruiting class, led by Scott Central High School standout Victoria Vivians coming in for the 2014-15 season, Schaefer couldn't help look ahead to next season and the excitement that is building for the future.
"These kids have changed, these returners," Schaefer said. "They have adapted to a way of doing things they were not comfortable with a year ago. They are absolutely all in right now, and you have to give these kids a lot of credit.
"These kids are on their way. It is going to be a lot of fun. The crowds we have had the last three or four nights, it is going to be like that every night. It won't matter who we are playing, and it shouldn't matter who we are playing. You come to see the Dogs play."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.