February 17, 2018 11:42:34 PM
STARKVILLE -- Focus has been instrumental to the Mississippi State women's basketball team's success.
The Bulldogs have attracted increased attention as the wins have piled up and they have climbed to No. 2 in The Associated Press and the USA Today Top 25 polls. Through it all, MSU has stayed the course through injuries, personnel changes, and opponents driven by the opportunity to knock off one of the nation's top teams.
At 4 p.m. today (ESPN2), No. 2 MSU's focus will be tested again when it tries to clinch its first Southeastern Conference regular-season title outright against old friend Gary Blair and his No. 17 Texas A&M Aggies at Humphrey Coliseum.
"I know everybody wants to talk about where we are and what we have done, but for these kids and this program, we have a lot of unfinished business," Schaefer said. "That is our focus."
Schaefer, who is in his sixth season as coach at MSU, spent 15 years as an assistant/associate head coach under Blair at Arkansas and Texas A&M. He solidified his reputation as the "Secretary of Defense" in that time and played an integral role in Texas A&M's run to the national title in 2011.
Last season, Schaefer led MSU to its first trip to Final Four of the NCAA tournament. In the national semifinals, MSU ended four-time reigning national champion Connecticut's NCAA-record 111-game winning streak. It then lost to South Carolina in the national title game.
This season, MSU (27-0, 13-0 SEC) is riding a program-best winning streak to start the season. It remains one of two undefeated teams in Division I women's basketball. UConn is the other. With three regular-season games left to play, MSU has secured at least a share of the SEC regular-season title and the No. 1 seed for the SEC tournament, which will begin Wednesday, Feb. 28, in Nashville, Tennessee.
The top four teams receive double byes for the SEC tournament.
But Schaefer wants to avoid a repeat of last season, when MSU had a chance to claim at least a share of its first conference championship in women's basketball and lost to Kentucky in overtime and to Tennessee at home to finish second to South Carolina.
Schaefer said he talked about having the right mind-set with his players prior to a 95-50 victory against Vanderbilt on Thursday. He said he was pleased with how the Bulldogs went out and "took" the win by throwing the first punch and the next one and the next one. Schaefer believes MSU will have to do the same thing today, against Auburn, and against Kentucky in the regular-season finale so it can enter the SEC tournament on its terms.
"We stood around for two games and thought it would happen last year and we didn't go make it happen," Schaefer said. "It is nobody's fault but our own. I think these kids understand if we're going to go get an outright championship, we're going to have to go take it. Nobody is going to give it to us."
Schaefer felt Kentucky and Tennessee played harder than MSU and pushed the Bulldogs back on their heels last season. He feels the Bulldogs have learned from those games and understand the importance of going out and "making it happen."
Schaefer said he thought his team came out with "an edge" against Vanderbilt. He said that is an encouraging sign for an experienced team that senses one season is nearly over and a second season is almost here.
Senior guard Blair Schaefer, who is coach Schaefer's daughter, echoed that sentiment when she said it doesn't matter that Texas A&M is next on the schedule.
"I think we just have to understand that all the teams in the SEC have great guards, great posts -- they're great teams," Blair Schaefer said. "We have to prepare for each team differently, and Texas A&M is another great team. We're focused on preparing for them and preparing for them only."
Texas A&M (20-7, 9-4) is coming off an 85-80 victory against Florida on Thursday. The Aggies are in a five-way tie for third place in the league.
Texas A&M enters the game averaging 77.2 points per game. It has scored less than 60 points in a game only twice this season (losses to West Virginia and South Carolina). That statistic is significant because MSU has limited opponents to 52.2 ppg. in its last five games, and 55.5 in the SEC.
MSU also is forcing opponents into 20.4 turnovers a game. Texas A&M is one of the league's best teams in taking care of the basketball. It commits only 13.7 turnovers per game. MSU commits 10.85 per game.
Freshman point guard Chennedy Carter leads Texas A&M in scoring at 21.1 ppg. Senior center Khaalia Hillsman (14.9 ppg., 7.9 rebounds per game), junior guard Danni Williams (14.9 ppg.), and junior forward Anriel Howard (11.9 ppg., 11.7 rpg.) also average double figures.
Senior forward/guard Jasmine Lumpkin (6.8 ppg., 6.0 rpg.) rounds out the starting five. All of the Aggies' starters average 30.6 minutes per game. Kayla Wells (12.2 minutes per game) is the only bench player who averages double-digit minutes.
"There's a lot of love and admiration for coach Blair," coach Schaefer said. "It's always odd when we play each other since I was on the same bench with them for 15 years. As far as our game (today), it just happens to fall where it falls. I am not going to prepare any harder for this one than I did the first one or the eighth one. I am going to do everything I can to give my kids a chance to win. That's my job. I know my staff will do the same thing.
"We prepare every game, every week like it's for the National Championship. That's how we're built. That's why I feel like my staff is the best in the country. ... In that sense, it's just the next one up. There's no more significance (to this game). It's significant in that we got a chance to clinch (the SEC title) outright. That's what makes that game significant for us."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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