August 19, 2014 4:32:37 PM
STARKVILLE -- A 4-0 record is the first indication the Mississippi State women's basketball team's trip Belgium and France was a success.
But as much as coach Vic Schaefer breaks down the numbers and loves that his team averaged more than 100 points a game and had eight players score more than six points a game, he knows things will be different once his team begins Southeastern Conference play.
But SEC play -- like the start of practice and the 2014-15 season -- is a ways away, which means MSU will have even more time to build on the first steps it took in its initial games as a team. Judging from how well MSU's five freshmen worked into the mix and how well the team's four sophomores, including Chinwe Okorie in her first action with the team, showcased their growth, the bonds that the Bulldogs established and developed could be their biggest takeaway from the international trip.
"I didn't want to lose a game over there," Schaefer said. "The one game that was really good, really competitive, and really physical (a 74-52 victory against AMW Select, an All-Star professional team), our kids just jumped in the middle of it and didn't back down."
Sophomore Breanna Richardson and freshman Victoria Vivians led the team in scoring at 15.3 points per game. Freshman guards Blair Schaefer and Morgan William were next in scoring at 9.8 and 9.5 ppg., respectively. Okorie, a 6-foot-5 center who redshirted last season, averaged 9.0 points and a team-best 9.3 rebounds a game. Schaefer counted Okorie's 17-rebound effort against Sparta Laarne a highlight of the trip. He also praised the point guard play of senior Jerica James and William.
"Watching the freshmen interact with us and play with us (was one of the most important things to take from the trip)," James said. "We had an amazing level of being physical, even the freshmen. The physical level on our half was great, and we were able to play through adversity and win the games."
James and Martha Alwal averaged 7.0 points per game, while classmate Kendra Grant averaged 5.0.
"I think Ketara (Chapel) and Breanna have a scorer's mentality," Schaefer said. "They are both really special. Chinwe is just going to get better, which is another good reason to go on this trip. Martha didn't have big numbers. Part of that is our team and the ability to do it in other spots. The other part of it is maybe a little lack of motivation that she didn't really go against anybody except the one night."
Schaefer, whose nickname is "the Secretary of Defense," admitted he loved his team scored 105 or more points three times, including a high of 124 in the final game against Aoste Select. In the next breath, though, Schafer, who said he was the "offensive coach" on the trip, couldn't help point out that his team gave up a 3-pointer on the last play of the game against Aoste Select. The trey gave Aoste Select 30 points, two more than the goal MSU set for itself. Schaefer said he wasn't sure who the "defensive coach" was on the trip because none of the other coaches on the staff would own up to it.
Giving up a 3-pointer at the buzzer might be a trivial statistic to quibble about in a blowout, but Schaefer said those are the kind of expectations MSU is going to measure itself against this season. Coming off a 22-14 season in which it won three postseason games for the first time in program history and advanced to the quarterfinals of the Women's National Invitation Tournament, Schaefer knows his team, which went 5-11 in the SEC, can climb the ladder. The key, he said, will be continued development of all of the pieces so the Bulldogs can build on their chemistry lessons in August.
"I love the competitiveness (of the freshmen)," Schaefer said. "I think they are all winners. I think they all bring something unique to the table, and I think they are all ultra-competitive.
"The chemistry is going to be the biggest part. I think as a whole everyone can see that we're a very competitive group, we all can play, there is a skill set as a whole, and nobody should get satisfied or complacent because somebody is going to take your spot. ... I think that will be the biggest thing you can take from it going forward is realizing I better take care of my business because the five freshmen aren't coming here being satisfied, (and) our sophomores came in and took peoples' positions last year."
Grant acknowledged there was a difference in the skill level between the Bulldogs and the other teams, but she said she was pleased with the way everyone heeded Schaefer's wished and "jumped on" each opponent early in the game to set the tone. She hopes that bodes well for a season that is waiting in the wings.
"We got used to each other (on the trip), but one of the main things we want to take from the trip is knowing we can beat a team like the All-Star pro team," Grant said. "They were a good team, and we have to know the work we have to do for the teams we have coming up."
MSU will continue individual workouts until it starts practice for the season the first week of October. Schaefer said the team likely will hold its first practice Monday, Oct. 6.
MSU will play in the 16-team Preseason WNIT, which begins Nov. 14-15. Teams will play three games in the event. The Bulldogs' complete 2014-15 schedule hasn't been released.
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Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.