January 18, 2018 10:23:24 PM
STARKVILLE -- Offensive efficiency has been the Mississippi State women's basketball team's calling card this season.
Entering Thursday's games, No. 3 MSU was first in the Southeastern Conference in scoring (86.4 points per game) and second in field goal shooting percentage (48.5).
As good as MSU was last season en route to a program-record 34-win season, it relied more on its chemistry, experience, depth, and defense to make its first appearance in the Final Four of the NCAA tournament and to reach the national title game.
Woven into those intangibles were two statistics -- points off turnovers and second-chance points -- that played key roles in the Bulldogs' success. Despite going nearly the entire way with a four-guard lineup, MSU has had similar success in both areas this season. Those two stats could be big factors at 2 p.m. Sunday when No. 3 MSU (19-0, 5-0 Southeastern Conference) takes on No. 6 Tennessee (16-2, 4-1) at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tennessee. ESPN2 will broadcast the game.
"It's just a matter of how hard you're working and not taking plays off," MSU senior guard Roshunda Johnson said when asked how much more important forcing turnovers and scoring second-chance points will be as the Bulldogs get deeper into the season. "Those are things that could help you win a game or be something you're not doing that could also make you lose a game. It becomes important just knowing you have to do everything."
In its last game, MSU forced 26 turnovers in a 75-61 victory against Alabama on Sunday in Starkville. The Bulldogs turned those miscues into a 35-12 edge in points off turnovers. It was the fifth time this season the Bulldogs have scored 30 or more points off turnovers. It also was the 11th time MSU has forced an opponent into 20 or more turnovers.
Last season, MSU had six games in which it scored 30 or more points off turnovers. MSU reached that mark only once (against Missouri) once it entered SEC play through the rest of the season.
MSU's ability to force teams into turnovers is telling because it was 30-4 last season when it had fewer or the same number of turnovers than its opponent. Through last season, MSU was 106-26 in Schaefer's first five seasons.
This season, MSU has had fewer turnovers than its opponent in every game except against Arizona State, LSU, and Ole Miss.
"I think they become more important," MSU senior guard Blair Schaefer said, referring to forcing turnovers and second-chance points. "When you play better teams, everything matters. You can't give up the last two minutes of a ballgame because you're up 20. You can't give up those points because whenever you get into a close game you never know when those habits are going to carry over. We just have to really focus on us getting second-chance points and doing the little things because in big ballgames you don't have extra opportunities like we might have in other games we have played."
Second-chance points were another source of strength for MSU last season. The Bulldogs scored 20 or more points nine times in their program-record 34-win season. They accomplished the feat five times once they entered SEC play through the rest of the season, including in NCAA tournament victories against Troy and Washington. MSU also had 19 second-chance points against in NCAA tournament wins against DePaul and 18 against Connecticut.
Against Alabama, MSU had a 26-2 edge in second-chance points. It marked the fourth time this season the Bulldogs have eclipsed the 20 points in that category.
MSU defeated Tennessee 74-64 on Jan. 8, 2017, for its first victory in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 16 meetings. Tennessee won the rematch 82-64 on Feb. 26, 2017, in Starkville.
On Thursday, MSU coach Vic Schaefer said he hoped the memory of that loss on Senior Day left a bitter taste in the mouths of his players.
This season, MSU and Tennessee will face off only once in the regular season. That would make a victory by MSU even more valuable because it would put it at least two games up in the loss column against Tennessee, South Carolina, and Texas A&M. Georgia and Missouri enter this weekend's games as the only SEC teams with one loss in the league.
On Thursday, No. 5 Notre Dame rallied from a 23-point deficit to beat No. 6 Tennessee 84-70 in South Bend, Indiana. The Fighting Irish recorded their largest comeback ever by forcing 28 turnovers, 15 in the second half. Notre Dame outscored Tennessee 34-10 in the fourth quarter.
MSU earns No. 1 seed in NCAA's first reveal of top 16 seeds
The NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Committee provided the first of three-regular season top-16 rankings in seed order Thursday evening, with UConn, MSU, Louisville, and Oregon earning No. 1 seeds if the season ended Thursday.
With 54 days remaining before Selection Monday on March 12, the committee also named the No. 5 through16 seeds in order, as Tennessee, Notre Dame, Texas, South Carolina, Baylor, Ohio State, Florida State, UCLA, Missouri, Texas A&M, Rutgers, and Georgia were identified for games played through Jan. 16.
In addition, the committee designated region assignments for each of the four No. 1 seeds. If the season ended Thursday, UConn would be the No. 1 seed in the Albany Region, while MSU would be the top seed in the Kansas City region, Louisville in the Lexington Region, and Oregon in the Spokane Region.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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