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MSU's willingness to share ball key to undefeated start

 

Mississippi State senior point guard Morgan William (2) leads the Southeastern Conference in assist-to-turnover ratio.

Mississippi State senior point guard Morgan William (2) leads the Southeastern Conference in assist-to-turnover ratio. Photo by: Chris McDill/Special to The Dispatch  Buy this photo.

 

Adam Minichino

 

 

Four-pass possessions typically don't generate a lot of buzz. 

 

But an otherwise ordinary trip early in the then-No. 4 Mississippi State women's basketball team's game against Alabama on Sunday epitomizes how the Bulldogs have become one of the nation's best teams. 

 

Leading 3-2, senior point guard Morgan William initiated the offense with a lob pass to the right corner to Blair Schaefer. The pass looked like it was going out of bounds, but Schaefer saved it, gained her footing and then attacked the baseline. Alabama responded by cutting Schaefer off, but she found Roshunda Johnson open on the left wing behind the 3-point arc. The senior passed up a chance to shoot or to create off the dribble and passed the ball back to William, who balanced the court. 

 

The action settled only for a second. 

 

With a taller Shaquera Wade on her, William sensed her opportunity and darted to the right. The help defense didn't come initially, but forward Quanetria Bolton slid over so she could be in position if William opted to take the ball to the rim. 

 

At 5-foot-5, William likely would have been able to deliver a teardrop over the 6-foot Bolton. Still, she thought better of getting her shot blocked or being called for a charge and flicked a pass to her right. The decision proved to be the right one, as Schaefer was wide open in the corner and drained a 3-pointer. 

 

The assist was one of four for William on a day MSU matched its total for the second fewest in a game this season en route to a 75-61 victory. 

 

Even though MSU had only 10 assists, William's pass to Schaefer and her pass on the subsequent possession -- penetration by William that drew a help defender and created an opening on the wing for Victoria Vivians -- displayed the formula that has helped the Bulldogs climb to No. 3 in the nation on the strength of a 19-0 start for the second-straight season. 

 

"It is who we are," MSU coach Vic Schaefer said. "We have four senior guards out there and those kids can all make shots. When we do, we're good at finding our teammates and being unselfish." 

 

Coach Schaefer reiterated that a key piece of the success has been the chemistry of William and senior guards Victoria Vivians, Blair Schaefer, and Roshunda Johnson.  

 

Vivians, who led MSU in scoring in her first three seasons, is second on the team in scoring to Teaira McCowan (20.9 points per game) at 19.3 ppg. She is shooting a career-best 53.5 percent from the field. She is shooting 50 percent from the field in the SEC. 

 

Schaefer, who is Vic's daughter, is more of a stationary shooter. Her ability to get shots off quickly has matured because as she has said, she recognizes she has a small window to be open and she has to capitalize. She leads the team with 46 3-pointers. 

 

Johnson, a left-hander who also has played point guard, is adept at creating her own shot, which makes her even more dangerous when defenses sag off her. With 38 3-pointers, which is second on the team, Johnson can make teams pay when they leave her open or the Bulldogs reverse the basketball. 

 

"Ro and Blair have always been really good at finding each other," coach Schaefer said.  

 

The ability of Schaefer and Johnson to play off each other is a great example of why MSU has been successful in an offense that in some ways is different from last season. Through five Southeastern Conference games in 2016-17, MSU attempted 25 3-pointers. In that same span this season, it has attempted 94. 

 

Coach Schaefer said he didn't have to tinker with the offense very much after losing Ketara Chapel, Dominique Dillingham, Chinwe Okorie, and Breanna Richardson from a program-record 34-win team that secured the program's first appearance in the Final Four and advanced to the national title game. 

 

Schaefer said the offense has evolved "probably more out of natural chemistry." Through 19 games, MSU has 34 more assists than the same stretch last season. The Bulldogs also are shooting better from the field (48.5 percent to 46.4) than they did in 2016-17. 

 

In SEC play, the difference in MSU's shooting is even more pronounced. MSU leads the league in field goal shooting percentage (50.5). A year ago, MSU shot 42.5 percent in its first five league games. 

 

Schaefer said the Bulldogs' ability to create out of their "dribble-drive" offense, which looks like a weave when the players exchange the basketball at the top of the key and at foul line extended, lends itself to forcing defenders to make decisions. As a result, the Bulldogs have been able to find teammates for plenty of good looks. 

 

"I think Morgan and (backup point guard) Jazz(mun Holmes) really have developed to understand the offense and if something is taken away what is open," Schaefer said.  

 

Even though William's scoring is down from 11.1 ppg. to 7.5 ppg., she is seventh in the SEC in assists per game (4.5) and is first in assist-to-turnover ratio (4.1). She also has 86 assists, which is nine more than she had in the same stretch last season, and 23 fewer turnovers. 

 

Holmes, who is fourth in the SEC in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.6), is playing 3.3 more minutes per game than she did last season. With 57 assists and 22 turnovers, her production is similar to last season, when she had 63 assists and 21 turnovers at this time. 

 

Coach Schaefer said William and Holmes complement each other extremely well, which helps explain why the Bulldogs are shooting so well from the field and are scoring 86.4 ppg., which is seven more than at the same time last season. 

 

When asked if the willingness of players and teams to share the basketball comes before the having the skill to do it, coach Schaefer said players and teams need the skills to do it and the understanding how to execute it. 

 

"Morgan is really good at it and Jazz is really good at it," Schaefer said. "Those kids have a great understanding. Jazz sees the floor really well in transition. She is constantly finding Blair and Ro in a secondary break. She understands how to slice the floor and make that slice pass, which is really hard to deal with, more so than even Morgan. 

 

"Morgan is really good in the half court at penetrating and doing some things." 

 

But William and Holmes aren't the only Bulldogs proficient in creating opportunities. Thanks to William, Holmes, Johnson, Schaefer, and Vivians, MSU is the only team in the SEC with five players averaging two or more assists a game. Florida, Georgia, LSU, and Tennessee have four. The willingness to share the basketball has been a key to the unselfishness of an experienced team that coach Schaefer hopes stays focused on winning, not who gets the glory. 

 

Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor

 

Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.

 

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