March 31, 2014 11:05:57 PM
STARKVILLE -- A year ago, the bitter disappointment of a loss to Alabama in the Southeastern Conference Tournament stayed with Vic Schaefer for a long time.
The veteran coach admitted he had a hard time getting over the loss because it came inexplicably after his Mississippi State women's basketball team had handled Alabama easily in the regular season.
What a difference a year makes.
There's not denying the disappointment was there Monday following a last-second 60-58 loss to South Florida in the quarterfinals of the Women's National Invitation Tournament. This season, though, the end came thanks to a Courtney Williams' 3-pointer just before time expired. It's one thing not to play anywhere near your best game in your last outing of the season. It's another to do nearly everything you could and then to get beat by a great play.
For MSU, which finished 22-14 in it second season under Schaefer, the loss in no way should take away for the growth and progress the Bulldogs and the program made this season. Anyone who attended any of the WNIT games against Tulane, Southern Mississippi, Auburn, or USF could deny there wasn't great energy in Humphrey Coliseum. The fans who came to see the Bulldogs watched a group that was far from perfect. In fact, MSU at times looked like it had its biggest struggles trying to overcome itself. But the Bulldogs never stopped competing, taking charges, and hustling through all of the ups and downs.
Schaefer tapped into that tenacity when he took the microphone and thanked the fans for coming out and supporting his team. After the loss to USF, he said in the postgame interview room that crowds of 3,006 was what he wanted to see going forward. He urged the fans to come to see the Bulldogs, not who the team was playing that day or night.
"This team is on its way," Schaefer said. "The people who walked out of the arena tonight now have a connection with this team. They know this team is fun to watch.
"There is no one that is going to out-tough us or out-physical us."
The Bulldogs displayed some of that toughness after the game. As difficult as it was to swallow the loss to USF, junior center Martha Alwal and Breanna Richardson owned up and said they expected more of themselves. Alwal nearly had the game-winning layup after taking a pass from Jerica James to score with 4.2 seconds remaining. Unfortunately, Alwal, a first-team All-SEC performer, scored only five points and had eight rebounds. Part of it could be blamed on the "wrestling match" that broke out in the post. That's how USF coach Jose Fernandez described the physical play in the paint. But Alwal didn't use the physical play of the Bulls' size in the frontcourt as excuses.
"It was pretty physical, but, at the same time, I didn't want any part of it," Alwal said. "I am really disappointed in myself because I feel like if I would have had a game like I know I could have had, it would have been a completely different game."
Richardson, a freshman forward, lamented a 5-for-15 shooting effort from the field and said she should have done a better job converting some of her shots in the paint.
The comments from both players reflect a new level of ownership in the program. In the past, the Bulldogs have talked about living up to expectations, but their limitations prevented them from accomplishing their goals. Now, though, those limitations are challenges that the Bulldogs are going to use as motivation to get them better. Whether that means getting into the gym to take extra shooting practice or working harder in the weight room to get stronger and more explosive, there are a variety of ways the current group of Bulldogs can spend their offseason to come back even better in 2014-15.
That shouldn't be a problem because Schaefer and his coaches are going to demand that investment. The players know that. They also realize a talented group of five newcomers is going to join the program and push the returning players for playing time. The addition of Chinwe Okorie at center also should push Alwal to be even better and give the Bulldogs another defensive presence at the back of an attacking defense.
If that mix sounds tantalizingly good, it should because MSU has raised the bar. Schaefer's group showed in victories against Tulane, Southern Mississippi, and Auburn and against USF it belongs with the nation's top programs. With point guard Katia May the only key contributor the team will lose to graduation, the goal for next season will be the NCAA tournament. There also is no reason MSU shouldn't expect to receive consideration for a top-25 ranking. That's heady stuff for Schaefer as he enters year three in the transformation process. The former Arkansas and Texas A&M associate head coach knows what it takes to build a perennial contender and a national champion. He hasn't shied away from telling the players that is what he expects from them on a daily basis. Next year, the Bulldogs will get a chance to build on a year of growth and to take the next step.
It's a step that should prove to be very exciting.
"It feels really good to see how far we have come," said junior guard Kendra Grant, whose hot shooting nearly lifted MSU past USF. "Making it to the Elite Eight of the WNIT tells us we have come a long way. It feels really good to know we are making a difference and becoming a really good team."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.