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MSU women start by sharing ball


Adam Minichino



STARKVILLE -- Vic Schaefer feels his 2014-15 Mississippi State women's basketball team has enough weapons to make opponents pay inside, outside, or against any kind of defense. 


MSU's third-year head coach had to like what he saw Sunday, as the Bulldogs had 23 assists on 39 baskets in a 114-58 victory against Division II Arkansas-Fort Smith in an exhibition game before a crowd of 973 at Humphrey Coliseum. 


Freshman Victoria Vivians scored a game-high 20 points to lead four players in double figures for MSU, which will open its season at 8 p.m. Friday against Mercer in the opening round of the Preseason Women's National Invitation Tournament. Sherise Williams (19 points), Blair Schaefer (15), and Morgan William (11) also scored in double figures to help the Bulldogs, who were playing without center Martha Alwal and guards Kendra Grant and Savannah Carter, in their only exhibition game. 


If you combine MSU's giving attitude with Williams' productivity in place of Alwal, a first-team All-Southeastern Conference performer last season, the team's desire to help on defense, and the fact that all 11 players scored, the Bulldogs could have a recipe that spells double the fun this season. 


"He is doing a marvelous job," said Arkansas-Fort Smith coach Louis Whorton, whose team lost in an exhibition game against MSU 84-48 to open the 2011-12 season, the last season before Schaefer took over the program. "They look like an upper-echelon SEC team, so it is going to be fun watching them play because if you can compete in the SEC, you can compete on the national level. I think that is where this program at MSU is headed." 


Whorton, who has worked as a coach for 39 years and is in his 29th year at Arkansas-Fort Smith, has known Schaefer since he was head coach at Sam Houston State. MSU associate head coach Johnnie Harris also worked as an assistant coach under Whorton earlier in her career. Whorton said there isn't a "trick" or a "secret" to building a program. But Whorton said the signs are there that Schaefer and his staff have things movin g in the right direction in their third year in Starkville. 


"You have to get support from the fans, and he has obviously done that," Whorton said. "I thought for a Sunday afternoon exhibition game they had a really good crowd. Vic is a great promoter. The second thing (in building a program) is you have to recruit good players. Vic always has been a good recruiter, but he also has put a staff together that not only can coach on the floor, but can recruit. That is the key. It doesn't matter how good a coach you are, if your players can't play, you're not going to be very successful." 


MSU received immediate contributions from all of the members of its No. 20 recruiting class. Vivians, the state of Mississippi's all-time leading scorer in high school, took the most shots on the team and was 7 of 14 from the field. She played at the top of the press and was disruptive enough to get four steals and a few easy scoring chances. She also had five assists and five rebounds. 


"It is relieving (to have that many options on the team) because now I have players that can finish the passes and finish the shots when I pass it and I don't have to shoot everything," Vivians said. "It is fun to pass. I like passing the ball." 


Schaefer hit five 3-pointers to account for all her points, while William had three assists in splitting time at point guard with Jerica James (seven assists) and LaKaris Salter had eight points in 11 minutes. Guard Kayla Nevitt was 1 of 9 from the field and had five points. 


"As a team, we really are working on meshing together," Blair Schaefer said. "We know everybody does one thing really well, so we know if we move the ball and we have patience, if we can get it to certain people at the right time, they can do that one job. We are really focusing on patience, and I think that has a lot to do with our assists because when you have patience and you reverse the ball, especially against a zone, someone is going to be open. That is where some of the assists come in." 


Last season, MSU had more 23 or more assists once (a 111-38 victory against New Orleans) and eclipsed the 20-assist mark three times. On Sunday, guards Dominique Dillingham, James, Vivians, Schaefer, William, and Nevitt combined to shoot 20 of 48 from the field (42 percent). That mark will be important because MSU shot 39.7 percent as a team last season. With Vivians, MSU has a wing player who can hit from 3-point range equally as well as she can create off the dribble. In Nevitt and Schaefer, the Bulldogs have two zone stretchers who should be able to open things inside for Alwal, Breanna Richardson, Ketara Chapel, Chinwe Okorie, and the other post players. 


On Sunday, Williams emerged from that group with an 8-of-9 shooting performance from the field in 21 minutes. The 6-foot-1 junior forward was the beneficiary of numerous nice passes, including at least two by Vivians on dribble penetration. Williams said her work on the block in practice with Harris has helped her develop more confidence in her left hand, and she showcased that maturity by scoring twice with the left hand. 


"I thought Sherise was really good tonight and played probably the best she has played since she has been here," Vic Schaefer said.  


In all, MSU shot 51.3 percent (37 of 76) from the field, forced 33 turnovers that led to 39 points, had 13 steals, including five by Dillingham, and received 67 points from its bench. Schaefer hopes the bench production stays at that level even if he has a hard time sorting minutes for 14 players when his three seniors return to action. On Sunday, Vivians logged a team-high 22 minutes in a game everyone played at least 11. 


"We have more options and our skill set is better," Schaefer said. "I have a team full of givers. We don't have any I people in the locker room. That is why we had 23 assists on 39 baskets." 


Schaefer said he hopes to have Carter, who was wearing a walking boot on her left foot, Alwal, and Grant back "sooner rather than later." 


n Alabama 80, North Alabama 48: At Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Sophomore Ashley Williams had 19 points and 12 rebounds Sunday as the Crimson Tide used a 50-17 second half to earn their exhibition victory at Foster Auditorium. 


Senior Briana Hutchen (15 points), freshmen Meoshonti Knight (13), and Diamante Martinez (10) also scored in double figures. Senior Sharin Rivers led Alabama with six assists. 


"I think there were a lot of positives," Alabama coach Kristy Curry said. "You always take so much away from early in the year to improve, but I think the positive was our balance, especially anytime you can have that fourth player in double figures -- and we're not going to be anything other than that. We've got to have four players in double figures, I feel like, to be successful. And we had one with nine, so nearly about had five. We've got to spread the scoring around. I was pleased with that today. I thought that was a real positive was sharing the basketball well. That was good to see because we can't depend on Ashley (Williams) to carry the load. She's got to have help." 


Alabama will play host to Florida A&M at 5:30 p.m. Friday in its season opener at Coleman Coliseum. The Alabama men will play host to Western Carolina at 8 p.m. 




n Ole Miss 111, Christian Brothers 43: At Oxford, Freshman Toree Thompson scored 25 points, and classmate Kelsey Briggs grabbed eight rebounds in an exhibition victory against Christian Brothers in exhibition action at Tad Smith Coliseum. 


Thompson also had nine assists and led four Rebels in double figures. Tia Faleru had 14 points, while Erika Sisk had 13 and Briggs added 12 points off the bench. 


"I am glad to see us come out and play that well," Ole Miss coach Matt Insell said. "We have a young basketball team and I just told them after the game that we have a long way to go to get to where we need to be. But, this is a good step for us as we grow as a team. I asked them to come out and play with a lot of focus for forty minutes. I feel as though they did that." 


Ole Miss had a 26-point lead to open the second half and doubled that with a little over five minutes left to play en route to their second-consecutive exhibition win. 


Ole Miss will play host to Grambling at 11 a.m. Friday in the 12th-annual School Kids Game at the Tad Smith Coliseum.


Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.


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