January 28, 2018 10:25:52 PM
OXFORD -- Conference play can create moments of hyperbole and disappointment.
Case in point: Connecticut women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma referring to his team's 78-60 victory against Tulsa on Jan. 18 as the "most disgraceful effort I've seen at Connecticut in 32 years I've been here."
Life is a little different in the American Athletic Conference than it is in the Southeastern Conference, but Vic Schaefer understands how and why Auriemma would make such a comment.
Mississippi State's sixth-year women's basketball coach didn't refer to his team's 69-49 victory against Ole Miss on Sunday in the same manner as Auriemma did to his team's victory against Tulsa. He also didn't offer to give every person their money back, like Auriemma said he would do to the UConn fans in Gampel Pavilion if it was up to him.
If Schaefer had made that offer, he would have had to make a hefty payout considering many in the crowd of 5,158 at The Pavilion at Ole Miss were wearing maroon.
But aside from a first quarter in which No. 2 MSU limited Ole Miss to four points, the prevailing sentiment from Schaefer after the game was disappointment in how his team performed.
"We can't win a championship if that's how we're going to play and that's our mind-set," Schaefer said. "I was disappointed in our mentality, especially in the second half. My message to my team tonight will be we're just kidding ourselves if we think we can win an SEC championship with the things we have going on right now from a mental capacity.
"We're just not very mentally tough, and you're not going to win in this league without toughness. In the first half, I thought we had that."
MSU used a 19-4 first quarter to build a cushion that never was seriously threatened to improve its program-best start to 22-0 and its Southeastern Conference-best start to 8-0. The win also enabled seniors Victoria Vivians (game-high 25 points), Blair Schaefer, and Morgan William to earn their 111th career victory to match the program record set last season by Ketara Chapel, Dominique Dillingham, Chinwe Okorie, and Breanna Richardson.
Redshirt senior Roshunda Johnson, a transfer from Oklahoma State, has been a part of the last two seasons at MSU.
Despite seeing the seniors match the program record for career wins and watching the Bulldogs force the Rebels (11-10, 1-7) into a season-high 25 turnovers, Schaefer was more concerned with his team's toughness and its mental focus. He said several areas were disappointing on a day MSU was outrebounded (38-32) for the second-straight game, and fifth time this season, had more turnovers than assists (12-11) for the sixth time this season, and shot 40.4 from the field (21-for-52), which is a season-low in the SEC. That mark is the Bulldogs' third-lowest of the season.
"I thought we were extremely tough and we came out and had tremendous energy, but toughness is defined by so many verbs and adjectives," Schaefer said. "Setting good screens is part of being tough. Hustling after loose balls. Blocking out. That's all toughness. You get a foul, you don't go get the second one two minutes later. You don't run over people when someone is setting screens on you.
"I am not really proud of our first half. I'm equally as disappointed in our second half. Again, if we are going to try to do something special, we have to learn and grow from today."
Schaefer said it is hard sometimes to keep players interested in the second half, but he credited Ole Miss for competing until the end of the game.
If not for Vivians, the Rebels might have find a way to cut deeper into the lead. As it was, MSU had a 23-12 edge in points off turnovers and built as much as a 26-point lead in the third quarter. Ole Miss got as close as 16 in the fourth quarter, but Vivians (10-for-18 shooting from the field) helped hold them at bay as the only Bulldog in double figures. It is the first time this season MSU has had only one player reach double digits. The rest of the Bulldogs combined to shoot 11-for-34 from the field.
"I was just running the plays that coach called," Vivians said. "At the end of the second half, I was kind of hot, so he kept calling plays for me, so I was just doing what he wanted us to do."
Later in the post-game media session, Schaefer was asked about the issues that exist with his team. He said the Bulldogs haven't been as sloppy as they were Sunday in a long, long time. Schaefer also reiterated that a similar performance at 7:30 p.m. Thursday (SEC Network) at Missouri won't bode well for MSU.
"If we put together a half like we did in the second half at Missouri we will get run out of Columbia," Schaefer said.
Schaefer then continued to talk about the issues he sees in a group he said still isn't a good practice team.
"There comes a point where when you're a player, if the coach is asking you to change, you either love winning so much that you're going to sacrifice yourself and you're going to change, or losing just doesn't bother you that much," Schaefer said. "At some point, if you're going to do something special and you need to change and fix something, then winning has to be more important than your own personal agenda."
Despite Schaefer's comments, MSU and UConn remain the only undefeated teams in Division I women's basketball. Both teams also haven't lost in conference play. In fact, MSU holds a two-game lead on every team in the SEC except Georgia, and it holds the tiebreaker thanks to an 86-62 victory on Dec. 31, 2017, in Athens, Georgia.
Still, Schaefer made a point after the game he wasn't going to "sugar coat" anything because he and the other members of his coaching staff are working too hard and people are making too many sacrifices for the issues he referred to not to go unchecked. His hope is the Bulldogs will find a way to address their issues so they will have a chance to win one more game than last season's team and walk away with the ultimate prize.
"I told you before the season started that two things would keep us from winning the championship: leadership and maturity," Schaefer said. "We are lacking in both. It won't happen. There is no sense in sugar coating it, acting like it. It ain't going to happen until we can get over it and learn that leadership and maturity is the key to victory and winning the championship."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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