December 31, 2017 9:11:47 PM
ATHENS, Ga. -- The Mississippi State women's basketball team is forcing opponents to pick their poison.
The first option is to double-team 6-foot-7 center Teaira McCowan and to force the Bulldogs to hit jump shots.
The second choice is to use player-to-player defense in an attempt to contain the perimeter shooters. That approach leaves an improved McCowan with a size advantage she is exploiting to put up huge numbers.
Neither route proved to be effective Sunday night.
McCowan scored a game-high 26 points en route to her seventh-straight double-double, and Victoria Vivians added 20 points and Roshunda Johnson had 16 to lead No. 5 MSU to an 86-62 victory against Georgia before a crowd of 2,934 in the Southeastern Conference for both teams at Stegeman Coliseum.
"They have a really good team," Georgia coach Joni Taylor said. "They are better offensively than they were last season because they just stretch you so much. If you are playing man, they're going to go inside to McCowan. If you double, they are going to kick it out to a shooter. If you play zone, they are going to stretch you, so we tried to mix it up and do different things. But when they are all hitting it makes it extremely tough."
MSU's willingness to share the basketball is creating plenty of open looks. On Sunday, senior Morgan William led MSU with six assists, while Blair Schaefer and Johnson had four.
In all, MSU had 19 assists to help coach Vic Schaefer earn his first victory at Stegeman Coliseum in 21 years (six at Arkansas, nine at Texas A&M, and six at MSU).
"For (the last) two years, you could count on one hand how many good looks we got against Georgia," Schaefer said. "Boy, we got a bunch of them today, and I thought our kids responded."
Schaefer said MSU has been practicing against six players in a zone in an effort to force the Bulldogs to make the extra pass and to break people down and create for their teammates.
Taylor felt MSU got "comfortable" against her team's zone defense after a first quarter that saw Georgia trail only 16-14.
But she said MSU gets better looks than it did last season because every player on the court is a threat to score. She said that is a big difference from a year ago when she said MSU had players teams didn't have to be concerned about hitting outside shots or hitting from 3-point range. Still, MSU used its experience and depth to win a program-record 34 games and advance to the national title game for the first time in program history.
This season, Schaefer, who took two charges and hit three 3-pointers and had nine points against Georgia, leads MSU with 36 3-pointers, while Johnson and Vivians are close behind with 32 and 31, respectively.
"I think we have great confidence in our team, in our shooters, and in our post players," Blair Schaefer said, "so that is what makes us difficult to guard. I think coming out we were rushing a lot of shots and just not moving the ball. We were trying to make too much happen instead of letting the game come to us and instead of driving and kicking and making the defense shift."
With McCowan leading MSU in scoring (20.3 points per game), the Bulldogs' ability to score in different ways creates a difficult situation for opponents.
McCowan added 13 rebounds (nine on the offensive end) for her 11th double-double of the season. MSU supported McCowan by going 11-for-29 from 3-point range. The 29 attempts matched the team's most in a game this season. Eleven is the second-highest total of the season. MSU hit 13 3-pointers in a 91-56 victory against Southern Mississippi on Nov. 19.
Schaefer said McCowan, who had 15 points and 12 rebounds at halftime, was "special" and kept MSU going in the first quarter when it was 7-for-20 (35 percent) from the field. MSU shot 53.3 percent or better in the final three quarters and finished 32-for-65 (49.2 percent).
"When you have got the shooters we've got and the centerpiece inside, it just makes it hard to guard us," Schaefer said.
MSU used a 12-3 run in the second quarter to help build a 37-27 halftime lead. A 14-2 run in a 3-minute, 58-second span in the third quarter helped push the lead to 61-35. MSU had assists on all six field goals in that stretch. Those six assists were a part of a run of nine-straight assisted field goals that lasted into the fourth quarter.
Taylor said she felt her team's zone defense affected MSU in the first 10 minutes, but she said the Bulldogs were "too comfortable" for long stretches.
"They adjusted (after the first quarter) and then they became comfortable," Taylor said. "In the first quarter, they didn't really know our zone and they weren't sure, but after they started moving it around, finding their niches, we didn't do anything a second time to make them uncomfortable. A team like that that is going to make runs that is scoring, you have got to be able to all night long make them find another way to score."
Caliya Robinson led Georgia (12-2) with 13 points and seven rebounds. Mackenzie Engram added 10 points and seven rebounds, while Haley Clark had all 10 of her points in the first half. Taja Cole added seven assists.
But MSU capitalized on 20 turnovers and turned them into 27 points.
MSU will play host to Arkansas at 8 p.m. Thursday (SEC Network) at Humphrey Coliseum.
NOTES: Freshman forward Chloe Bibby returned from an illness that forced her to miss the game against Mississippi Valley State. She had five points in eight minutes. ... Georgia outrebounded MSU 19-12 in the second half to win the rebounding battle (35-33). Georgia is the third team (Green Bay, Oklahoma State) to outrebound MSU.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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