January 22, 2019 10:43:42 PM
STARKVILLE -- To the left, Myah Taylor worked at the top of the key and fired passes to Anriel Howard.
With 24 minutes and counting remaining on the clock, Howard launched a mid-range jump shot and started the routine again.
To the right, Andra Espinoza-Hunter took a pass just inside the 3-point arc and elevated. In the right corner, Ketara Chapel flicked passes to Jordan Danberry for corner 3-pointers. The drill continued with Mississippi State assistant women's basketball coach Elena Lovato checking Espinoza-Hunter and forcing her to make moves off the dribble and shoot jump shots.
Work like that Tuesday by several Bulldogs is just one reason coach Vic Schaefer's team is atop the Southeastern Conference at 17-1 and 5-0 in the league.
Continued work like that by those Bulldogs and more will be needed if MSU is going to sustain its current pace. Schaefer believes No. 7 MSU will be able to maintain that pace even though it will play the rest of the season without sophomore Chloe Bibby.
"I think you lean on the whole not just one or two parts," Schaefer said. "I think everybody has to step up like Jordan said. I think that is a great answer and truly how it has to be.
"We'll see what we're made of right now. It's a tremendous challenge and it is how you respond in these situations that can really define you as a team."
Bibby suffered a season-ending anterior cruciate ligament injury to her left knee in the opening minute Thursday of MSU's 79-64 victory against then-No. 15 South Carolina. The injury means MSU will be without the player who was leading the team in minutes (29.2) and was its top 3-point shooter (36-for-80, 45 percent. In all, Bibby was fourth on the team in scoring (12.6 points per game) and was averaging 4.4 rebounds per game. The 6-foot-1 sophomore forward accounted for 14 percent of the team's shots, which means players like Espinoza-Hunter, Taylor, Jessika Carter Bre'Amber Scott, Xaria Wiggins, and Nyah Tate likely will have more opportunities to play bigger roles.
"I have a lot of confidence in our entire bench," Schaefer said. "Xaria is practicing better. Nyah Tate is coming along. I think we have a lot of kids over there who can step up."
There also could be more chances for starters like Howard, Danberry, Jazzmun Holmes, and Teaira McCowan. The consensus Tuesday was one player wasn't going to be called on to fill the void left by Bibby.
Despite losing a key piece of the puzzle, Schaefer said he will look to seniors McCowan, Danberry, Holmes, and Howard to set the tone. He declined to say who will replace Bibby in the starting lineup for the team's game at 6 p.m. Thursday at Florida.
Schaefer also said the Bulldogs have the flexibility to go with a bigger lineup with the 6-7 McCowan and the 6-5 Carter. He said the improved play of all of the reserves opens the possibility for numerous lineup combinations, which is why he isn't panicking without a shooter like Bibby who was shooting 48.1 percent from the field.
The numbers show MSU could have the versatility to withstand the injury. Prior to the game against South Carolina, MSU had four players -- McCowan, Howard, Danberrry, and Bibby -- who had attempted more than 100 shots from the field. Espinoza-Hunter (980 and Holmes (93) were on the cusp. With McCowan attempting only 15 percent of the Bulldogs' shots -- a number that is down from 20.4 percent last season -- there is an opportunity for McCowan to pick up some of the slack without Bibby. Seventeen games into the 2017-18 season, McCowan was averaging 20.8 points, 12.7 rebounds, and 1.9 blocked shots. Through 17 games this season, McCowan was averaging 16.8 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks. Her field goal shooting percentage (67.6 to 64.5) and her free-throw percentage (73.2 to 56.1) both are improved from last season.
But McCowan, who was named SEC Player of the Week for the second week in a row, said she doesn't think she will have to shoulder a bigger burden without Bibby.
"We can go with many different lineups," McCowan said. "We practice that all of the time. It is not just one person we will lean heavy toward. Everyone knows they have to step up."
Danberry and Holmes agreed, but they know it doesn't mean they have to change their games to give the Bulldogs what Bibby provided. Danberry said she will continue to do what she is comfortable doing and be ready to do more if needed.
"I am putting up those extra shots because you never know," Danberry said. "Teams may play us where they don't guard me out there and I will be prepared, but I am not going to come out and shooting five threes a game."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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