January 14, 2019 9:53:21 AM
STARKVILLE -- Vic Schaefer and the Mississippi State women's basketball team don't want to become "spoiled."
Sometimes it's hard to avoid that pitfall when you have won 19-straight regular-season games in the Southeastern Conference. It also can be a challenge to demand more from some of your players, especially center Teaira McCowan, who continues to be a double-double machine in her senior season.
But that's the situation Schaefer and the reigning SEC regular-season champion Bulldogs find themselves in following back-to-back appearances in the national title game. After fighting off a pair of tests from then-No. 16 Kentucky and Georgia, MSU will look to remain undefeated in the SEC when it takes on Auburn at 6 p.m. Monday (SEC Network) at Auburn Arena.
"It has just come to be expected, yet (McCowan) knows, I know, we can find areas that we need to work on and improve on," Schaefer said. "We just need to come to appreciate the things that are going on in women's basketball. These kids continue to carry it on."
Schaefer said Friday he had a difficult time sleeping after his team's 80-71 victory against Georgia on Thursday at Humphrey Coliseum. He said he wasn't happy with his team's defense on a night Georgia shot better than 60 percent from the field for most of the game and led midway through the fourth quarter. Schaefer said he will continue to hold himself and his players to a high standard. He reiterated that a lack of skill won't prevent the 2018-19 team from achieving its goals. He said the "intangibles" will be MSU's biggest hurdle, and that the Bulldogs continue to fight "battles" every day.
Still, MSU has found ways to win close games against Marquette, Kentucky, and Georgia when it hasn't played its best. Against Georgia, sophomore Chloe Bibby scored a career-high 24 points to keep MSU in the game for the first three quarters. MSU stopped its full-court press with about six minutes remaining in the game and then raised its level of intensity on defense to come from behind to extend its home winning streak to 29, which is tied for third in the nation.
McCowan, who had 18 points and 13 rebounds against Georgia for her fifth-straight double-double, said MSU has displayed toughness in finding way to win in those close games. She was an ideal example against Georgia because she shot 7-for-16 from the field. She easily could have had 12 or 13 field goals, but she missed in the paint on a night Georgia made her the focus of its defense.
"I think that is showing toughness because we're not letting their run get to us," McCowan said. "Basketball is a game of runs, but it is not like we have to jack it up here or jack it up there. We just have to work with the offense that (coach Schaefer) is calling or Jazz(mun Holmes) is calling and we just try to get the shot that is within the play."
No. 7 MSU (15-1, 3-0 SEC) will put its 19-game regular-season league winning streak on the line against Auburn (14-2, 2-1), which leads the SEC and is sixth in the country in steals (12.6 per game). Coach Terri Williams-Flournoy's team traps all over the court and uses pressure defense fro 40 minutes in a unique style designed to create havoc. As a result, Auburn has the fifth-highest turnover margin (+7.75) in Division I.
MSU figures to be on guard for the defensive pressure and primed for the best shot from another opponent, especially after a Sunday in league play that saw several surprises. Ole Miss upset then-No.16 Kentucky in Lexington, Kentucky, and Florida edged Missouri in Gainesville, Florida. Those wins were the first in the league for the Rebels and the Gators. Georgia also beat then-No. 13 Tennessee in Athens, Georgia, to hand the Lady Volunteers their third-straight loss in the league. It is the first time Tennessee has lost three in a row in the SEC in program history.
Schaefer acknowledged the SEC has a lot of parity this season. He said he wants all of his players to reach their potential and to be dominant, which makes him feel "helpless" when he sees games like the one against Georgia when things don't go the way he wants. Schaefer acknowledged his team's youth -- eight or nine are in their first year or year and a half in the system -- is playing a role in the inconsistency that the Bulldogs are fighting. He said he will continue to overcome those issues so MSU can continue its success.
"Last year was just different," Schaefer said. "To have an average margin of victory of 24 points just doesn't happen -- at any level in any sport. To do it in the Southeastern Conference with last year's team is crazy. Those numbers are off the charts. Again, I think we're spoiled around here and it is just not going to happen that way."
MSU will try to counter the upset special with an offense that is second in the nation (91.4 points per game) and the country's best scoring margin (35.9). Teaira McCowan leads the Bulldogs in scoring (16.5 points) and rebounds (13.5). She is one of four MSU players -- Anriel Howard (16.0 ppg.), Jordan Danberry (13.3), and Bibby (12.8) -- averaging double figures. The Bulldogs are shooting a league-best 50.4 percent from the field. That mark is fifth in the nation. The Bulldogs have 297 assists to 212 turnovers. The assist-to-turnover ratio figures to be a key statistic tonight as the Tigers, who were picked eighth in the preseason SEC poll, will try to force tempo with their pressure. Holmes (7.9 ppg.) has 84 assists and 20 turnovers.
NOTE: In MSU's last game, McCowan passed Sharon Thompson (1995-98, 1,526 points) and LaCharlotte Smith (1993-96, 1,533) to move into sixth place on MSU's all-time scoring list. The Brenham, Texas, native has 1,544 points and is 133 shy of Jennifer Fambrough (1999-2002, 1,677) for fifth place.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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