March 5, 2018 9:19:41 PM
No, Starkville, the sky didn't come crashing down Monday.
As much as it might have felt like that was the case, the Mississippi State women's basketball team isn't going to pack away the balls for 2017-18.
In fact, as much as MSU coach Vic Schaefer would like to protest, a loss Sunday might be just what the Southeastern Conference regular-season champions need. There is no denying suffering a 62-51 loss to South Carolina in the championship game of the SEC tournament is 1,000 percent better than a loss anytime after March 16, when the NCAA tournament begins first-round play.
Feel a sting
Sure, there is a heavy sense of disappointment because MSU played far from its best. The Bulldogs shot 34.5 percent from the field -- their second-lowest shooting percentage of the season -- but the percentage seemed even lower than that in part due to a five-point second quarter that left the team in a 30-19 hole.
Much like it did in a victory against Texas A&M in the semifinals, MSU fought back and looked like a different team in the third quarter, going 8-for-13 from the field. The only trouble was South Carolina went 6-for-13. The Bulldogs couldn't find an answer for the Gamecocks' size at multiple positions. South Carolina also spread MSU out and took away one of its strengths: team defense. The Gamecocks then attacked individual matchups where they felt they had an advantage.
Many of the numbers weren't pretty. The shooting percentage resulted in a season-low scoring output. The Gamecocks outrebounded the Bulldogs 38-23. It was MSU's largest deficit of the season. A 3-for-19 effort from 3-point range and a 36-20 discrepancy in points in the paint left MSU with few positive things on the state sheet to circle.
"We have had spurts throughout the season, but I feel like we have adjusted better throughout he season than we did tonight," said MSU senior guard Blair Schaefer, who was 0-for-5 from the field, all from 3-point range. "Tonight we did not adjust. (The coaches) kept saying, 'Attack, attack, attack,' and we would get good looks and we wouldn't make them, so just because we got good looks we were like, 'Oh, we'll get it again,' but they weren't falling. It doesn't matter if you're wide open. You're probably wide open for a reason if you're not hitting them by now. We definitely need to be smarter down the line and we need to understand that our coaches are telling us something for a reason, so we need to listen."
Coach Schaefer's line all season was he didn't need to lose to be taught a lesson. Blair's comment shows the Bulldogs might have needed a reminder. After all, the college basketball season is like an Ironman triathlon in that it has several parts and it requires players to maintain their mental and physical focus for more than six months. When you have as much success as MSU, it is natural for players to think everything is going to work all of the time. On Sunday, the Bulldogs had plenty of good looks. Unfortunately, they didn't fall. As a result, MSU lost to South Carolina in the SEC tournament title game for the third-straight year, and the Gamecocks made history by becoming the first SEC team to win four-straight tournament crowns.
Time to start again
MSU will regroup. Seniors Schaefer, Victoria Vivians, Roshunda Johnson, and Morgan William want to be remembered for more than just winning the program's first SEC regular-season title and being the winningest class in school history. They want the ultimate prize.
"I feel like we dug ourselves in a hole," William said. "The first two games of the SEC tournament we didn't really do good the first quarter, the first half, and I feel like it carried on to this game. We can't do that. We can't do that against ranked opponents or in championship games like this. It got us. It gave us our first loss. It is kind of hard to dig yourself out of a hole when you get down like that."
Coach Schaefer told William "good job" when she left the post-game media session. William has been an insightful, team-first player in her career. You can tell she is primed to do whatever is needed to help the Bulldogs win a national title. She scored 15 points in the victory against Texas A&M. William helped keep MSU in the game against South Carolina in the first half by attacking the basket. Still, at 5-foot-5, she has to remember to pick her spots and not try to do too much
That might be the biggest lesson MSU can take from its first loss. As much as Vivians has improved and McCowan has matured, MSU won its first 32 games because it shared the basketball, it moved the ball, and it attacked defenses and punched first. The hope is the loss to South Carolina reminds MSU what it has to do and that it has to relax and let the game flow. Move, cut, pick, pop. Defend, rebound, take charges. Those things made MSU one of the best teams in the nation. Those are ingredients the Bulldogs will need to win six more games and make everyone forget the disappointment of March 4.
"I think we will be fine," Johnson said. "We will go back to practice and know what we did wrong, and I feel like we will come back and practice hard and go harder."
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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