December 16, 2017 11:19:36 PM
STARKVILLE -- Johnnie Harris' voice drops almost to a whisper.
There's no need for the Mississippi State women's basketball associate her coach to lower her voice. She wasn't talking loudly at the beginning of the conversation. Besides, the subject -- MSU junior Teaira McCowan -- was safely tucked away on the practice court in Mize Pavilion finishing the day's practice, so she wouldn't have been able to hear her.
But Harris' answer wasn't a secret because anyone who follows the MSU women's basketball team has seen McCowan's potential to be great. Harris' answer, though, revealed part of the key to what might help the 6-foot-7 center from Brenham, Texas, the best post player in program history.
"I still don't think she realizes how good she can be," Harris said, when asked if McCowan realizes how good she can be, "and we still haven't seen her best."
Harris' comment came nearly two days after McCowan had a career-high 35 points and grabbed 19 rebounds in No. 5 MSU's 90-79 victory against No. 9 Oregon on Wednesday night at Humphrey Coliseum.
McCowan was 15-for-18 from the field and grabbed 12 offensive rebounds in a career-best 35 minutes. She also had five blocked shots in a dominating effort that pushed MSU to 10-0.
McCowan will look to build on her sixth double-double of the season and the 16th of her career at 2 p.m. today (SEC Network+) when MSU plays host to Maine at the Hump.
McCowan is second on the team in scoring (17.4 points per game) and first in rebounding (12.3 per game). Both marks are career bests. Only George Mason's Natalie Butler and Iowa's Megan Gustafson have higher scoring and rebounding averages for players averaging a double-double in those two categories through games played Thursday.
McCowan also is averaging 2.2 blocks and is shooting 65.8 percent from the field, which is seventh in the nation.
"She works hard and she is a skilled player," Harris said. "It is just getting her to play hard all of the time and to play hard through mistakes and to do things the right way. I think that is the difference between this year and previous years. I think she is playing through her mistakes. I think she is trying to do things the right way. She comes to practice focused and she is letting us coach her through the little things."
Harris' comments address an issue MSU coach Vic Schaefer highlighted in the preseason. With the graduation of center Chinwe Okorie, Schaefer acknowledged McCowan wasn't going to have another 6-5 player in practice to motivate her. The decision of sophomore forward Ameshya Williams last month to leave school dealt another blow to MSU's front-court depth and magnified the importance of McCowan's role on the 2017-18 squad. McCowan is living up to that responsibility by averaging 25.8 minutes a game. Last season, she averaged 8.7 points and 7.1 rebounds in 19.7 minutes per game while splitting time with Okorie in MSU's historic 34-win season.
McCowan played an integral role in MSU's run to its first appearance in the Final Four of the NCAA tournament and a spot in the national title game. She claimed a spot on the Oklahoma City All-Region team after averaging 18 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 3.5 blocks against Washington and Baylor. She scored what was then a career-best 26 points in the Sweet 16 win against Washington, completing the double-double with a game-high 12 rebounds.
McCowan joined the starting lineup in the NCAA tournament and averaged 11.7 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks per game in the run to the national championship game.
"The biggest thing for her is to get all in and stay all in and be motivated to be that All-American," Schaefer said in September. "There is no more Chinwe to push you. Can you find that whatever it is that keep you motivated and understand the importance you bring to our team. She is really important to what we do."
Schaefer has said multiple times senior Victoria Vivians and McCowan "belonged" when they participated in the United States Under-23 training camp in the summer. He felt the experience helped McCowan get in better shape and that it showed her she can't take any days off.
McCowan has built on that experience with hours and hours of work with Harris, who is responsible for the development of the Bulldogs' post players. Harris said McCowan has a better understanding of what it is going to take to be great so she can be on the floor for more minutes.
"A lot of it is confidence, but that is why she is confident because she is able to get those reps in practice, and she works hard," Harris said. "She gets a lot of reps, and when you get a lot of reps and you do it right, you have the confidence."
Harris said she has watched a lot of film with McCowan to help her understand what she hasn't been doing and what she could be doing better. She said McCowan's footwork is the biggest difference from last season.
"She is stepping toward the basket rather than fading out like she used to do," Harris said. "All of that has to do with her confidence."
Harris is fueling that confidence by providing a source of motivation. She said she has encouraged McCowan to make her mark by going after the program record for double-doubles in a season. Sandra Butler holds the program record with 20 (1983-84). LaToya Thomas (48) holds the career record. Harris said she tried to find something McCowan could focus on that would motivate her every day. She selected the double-double mark because she felt it is something she can reach every game.
"I think she is more serious, and I think that is part of her growth and maturation," Harris said. "I think she is playing for something.
"I told her you can't get it if you don't work to get it. I told her that will be something that will go down in the history books. She will make her mark. That is one of the things that is driving her."
McCowan's focus was evident after the game against Oregon. You could sense McCowan's focus when she made and held eye contact when answering questions in the post-game media room. She accentuated that level of engagement when she said she wants to be great. Her answer went back to a comment Schaefer made in September when he said, "I think for T it is that self-motivation, it is that understanding and being accountable, and holding yourself accountable and wanting to be the best you can be."
McCowan offered a glimpse of that potential when she scored 16-straight points in a 75-64 victory against Washington last season. She received an endless supply of high-fives from her teammates for that performance.
The high-fives figure to keep rolling in this season as McCowan sets her sights on the program's double-double mark and even higher goals. Earlier this season, McCowan, who was named Southeastern Conference Sixth Woman of the Year by league coaches last season, was named preseason second-team All-SEC. She also was named to the Naismith Trophy Top 50 watch list and to the watch list for the inaugural Lisa Leslie Award. The Naismith Award goes to the nation's top player, while the Leslie Award goes to the country's top center.
Harris believes McCowan can reach the double-double mark and be even more if she wants it. After helping former MSU standout Martha Alwal earn co-SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors and finish her career one of three players in SEC history (Florida's Vanessa Hayden and LSU's Sylvia Fowles the others) to record 1,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 300 blocks and assisting in the development of Okorie, Harris knows it is all up to McCowan.
"We see it in parts, but once she puts it all together, it is scary how good she can be," Harris said. "I think she wants to be great, and I am pushing her to be great. It is hard because she played 35 minutes (against Oregon), which is a little outside of her comfort zone, but she is capable of doing that. Getting her to break through that wall and to believe I have a little bit more is what we're working on every day.
"It starts with stacking it every drill. We run a lot, so it is making your time every time. She has started to do that. Every once in a while she will slack, but once she starts stacking every drill every practice and then starts coming in without me telling her to come in and do extra, that is when I think she will go to the next level."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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