November 20, 2017 10:18:20 AM
STARKVILLE -- Joye-Lee McNelis heard the whispers.
Coaches, like in any profession, talk about their peers, so the Southern Mississippi women's basketball coach was curious to see if some in her business were right when they said Mississippi State wouldn't be as strong after losing four key players from a program-record 34-win season and a trip to the national title game.
McNelis saw an effort Sunday that should put all of that talk to rest.
"The way Mississippi State shot the ball in the first quarter, I think they can win a national championship," McNelis said. "They shot the cover off of it. I don't know if we defended it very well, but that doesn't matter. If you can shoot it the way they shot it the way they did to start that basketball game, it just says how good the really are."
Coaches are known to exaggerate, including some who will do so in an attempt to make their team look a little better. McNelis didn't need to use hyperbole after seeing No. 7 MSU have five players score in double figures in a 91-56 victory before a crowd of 5,321 at Humphrey Coliseum.
Redshirt senior Roshunda Johnson scored a game-high 29 points to help MSU (3-0) win for the sixth-straight time in the annual series.
Teaira McCowan (17 points, 10 rebounds), Victoria Vivians (15 points), and Blair Schaefer and Chloe Bibby (10) also scored in double figures on a day the Bulldogs had 25 assists on 33 baskets and shot 45.2 percent from the field.
"I know a lot of people have had doubt with what all they lost last year," McNelis said. "I have heard a lot of coaches talk about that they won't be as good without (Dominique) Dillingham. They won't be as good without (Breanna) Richardson. I am going to tell you they are just as good."
McNelis said the addition of Bibby, a freshman forward from Australia, gives the Bulldogs a power forward, or four player, who has shooting range out to the 3-point line. She said Vic Schaefer's decision to play Vivians at power forward makes it difficult because teams can't double the post.
"It makes it extremely tough to be able to try to guard them," McNelis said. "We tried our zone. Our zone didn't work. They shot the cover off it, so we tried man. Again, we were outmatched, and we knew that coming in."
Southern Miss (3-1) entered the game with only three players taller than 6-foot, which presented a challenge when it came to guarding 6-7 junior center Teaira McCowan. McNelis said McCowan causes problems because she is an eraser on defense, which allows the Bulldogs to be aggressive in their player-to-player defense. McNelis said that suits coach Schaefer's style. The results were evident, as MSU forced 26 turnovers, had a 31-11 edge in points off turnovers, and a 33-5 edge in second-chance points.
Still, few of coach Schaefer's teams at have been able to match the level of production the current squad displayed. The Bulldogs had their most assists and fewest turnovers (10) in seven meetings against the Lady Eagles under Schaefer.
"That is a mark of a championship team," McNelis said of the 25 assists. "I think one thing that you get a feel just from watching is because they all can shoot it, they all want to give each other an opportunity to shoot it, so it is not like there is a dark hole."
Southern Miss won the first meeting with Schaefer as head coach, 61-59 in Hattiesburg in the 2012-13 season. Last season, MSU beat Southern Miss 72-50 in Hattiesburg. McNelis said the Lady Eagles' plan against the Bulldogs on Sunday didn't work.
"Last year we played them in Hattiesburg and battled them," McNelis said. "The reason being we didn't guard their four player. We were able to sandwich McCowan. We were able to sandwich their big kids. Now with Vivians playing the four, you can't do that when you have four guards."
McNelis said the Lady Eagles entered the game with the strategy that would allow senior point guard Morgan William and junior backup point guard Jazzmun Holmes to shoot. William was 0-for-2 from the field, but she had nine assists in 20 minutes, while Holmes was 2-for-6 from the field for eight points with seven assists (one turnover) and two steals in 21 minutes.
McNelis said Southern Miss took that approach even though William has displayed a knack for hitting big shots in her career. Last season, William scored a career-high 41 points in a victory against Baylor in the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament. She then hit the game-winning shot in overtime to help MSU beat four-time reigning national champion Connecticut in the national semifinals.
"Like I said, I think they are a better team than they were last year because you have nowhere to double other than William and Holmes at the point guard spot, and you hate to do that to a point guard because when they get it back and nobody is out there on them, they can orchestrate and do things," McNelis said. "When you have the shooters they have at their spots, you have got to be able to figure out which area you can help off of. Right now, there really is nobody you can."
McNelis said it isn't that William and Holmes can't hit 3-pointers or make outside shots. Instead, she said that isn't their role on this year's team, unless they have to do it.
"You have to figure out where you can cheat from," McNelis said. "You can't cheat off Vivians. You can't cheat off Schaefer. You can't cheat off Johnson. Who do you cheat off of? There is no way you can play down there (in the post) by yourself, so it is not to say (William and Holmes) aren't great players. They are very good players. It is just that they play their roles."
McNelis then checked the final stat sheet to see how many shots Vivians attempted. MSU's leading scorer the last three seasons was 6-for-12 from the field.
Even though she wasn't the leading scorer, Vivians' showing was impressive because it marked the second time in her career she has shot 50 percent or better from the field in three-straight games. The only other time came in her sophomore season when she achieved the feat against Grambling State, Mississippi Valley State, Norfolk State, and Savannah State.
In reading off MSU's scoring contributions, it sounded like a grocery list of players. The point wasn't lost on the media members in the room that the Bulldogs have numerous options to make preparation tough for opponents.
"They're going to be hard for people to beat," McNelis said.
Megan Brown had 11 and Shonte Hailes had 10 for Southern Miss. The Lady Eagles actually shot better from the field than the Bulldogs (46.9 percent to 45.2).
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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