February 20, 2019 1:20:26 PM
Vic Schaefer loves numbers.
The Mississippi State women's basketball coach has developed a well-documented habit of circling and squaring the key statistics on the box score after every game. He also routinely brings binders filled with statistics and scouting reports that chart just about every imaginable number to ensure he and his players are prepared.
By all of the numbers No. 6 MSU has put together this season, Schaefer should be pretty pleased.
As Schaefer's team enters the home stretch of the regular season, MSU is first in 11 of the 21 statistical categories the Southeastern Conference charts on its weekly notes package. The Bulldogs are second in three other categories, which shouldn't be surprising since they are 23-2 (11-1 in the SEC) and tied with the South Carolina Gamecocks for first place.
But numbers tell only part of the Bulldogs' story.
While pleased with his team's success in multiple areas, Schaefer continues to encourage the Bulldogs to give more as they prepare for a trip to Oxford and a game against Ole Miss at 7 p.m. Thursday (SEC Network+) at The Pavilion at Ole Miss.
"I think the big thing we're going to have to do is practice better," Schaefer said Tuesday night as he prepared to do a six-mile session on an Elliptical machine. "We're going to get better every day. That has been the thing about teams in the past. Where we were in February we were always better in March because we kept working hard at it. You can't get better if you're not practicing well. I'd like us to see us practice better and be more focused and have more desire in practice because you can't get better if you're not bringing it every day."
MSU "brought it" for large stretches of the game Sunday en route to a 92-64 victory against then-No. 22 Texas A&M in College Station, Texas. MSU turned 21 offensive rebounds into a 31-5 edge in second-chance points. The Bulldogs outrebounded the Aggies 47-32, prompting Texas A&M coach Gary Blair to use the word "relentless" to describe MSU's nature in going to the glass.
Anriel Howard, who played her first three seasons at Texas A&M, and Andra Espinoza-Hunter played key roles in the bounce-back victory. Espinoza-Hunter led MSU hit seven 3-pointers and scored a team-high 24 points. Howard added 19 points and 13 rebounds in her first game against her former school.
After the game, Schaefer said he was "extremely proud" of his team, which was a marked contrast to the tone of his last opening statement following a 75-67 loss to Missouri last Thursday night in Starkville.
Schaefer said the Bulldogs "responded" after not playing well against the Tigers. He said he talked to his players about how he wanted them to come out against the Aggies, and that everyone would be paying attention to see if they could answer the call.
Trailing 24-20 after one quarter, MSU used a 19-5 run to take a 39-31 lead. After taking a 43-36 halftime lead, MSU opened the second half on a 20-8 run to extend its margin to 66-48 with 2 minutes, 21 seconds left in the third quarter. A 17-5 run in the final period kicked the lead to 91-58, the largest of the night.
As impressive as the Bulldogs looked in stretches of the victory, Schaefer feels his team still has a lot of room for improvement. He said the Bulldogs have a lot of areas they need to address defensively. He also said MSU is still working to develop a chemistry that is similar to the connection the players on the 2017-18 team had that helped them drive the program to a record 37-win season.
"I would have to say defensively it's we're still creating new habits, we're still creating good habits," Schaefer said. "You've got to keep working at it. That's just the bottom line. A lot of it is effort, energy, and focus defensively. We have so many areas to improve. That's how good we can be. People say, 'Look at the stats. They're not bad. What is he complaining about it?'
"Not bad gets you a couple of rounds in the NCAA tournament. It gets you in the top four in the league. That's not what we're trying to do that. That's not what I am in it for."
Schaefer was referring to his team's push to the national title game the last two seasons. He said the days of MSU "settling" for top-four finishes or just securing a bid to the NCAA tournament are "way in the rear view mirror," which is why he is pushing his players to give more every day so they can realize the potential he and the members of his coaching staff see in the 2018-19 squad.
"I just think you keep talking to them about it and harping about it and keep driving that thing home. That is what it takes," Schaefer said. "You don't give up. You don't give in and you keep demanding it."
Schaefer said he doesn't think pounding that message will mean his players ultimately may tune him out. Instead, he said taking an approach like that is part of his job to help MSU be the best it can be and not "settle."
Part of not settling means continuing to push the Bulldogs to turn good shots into great shots. Even though four players -- Teaira McCowan (64.1 percent), Howard (52.3), and Jessika Carter (50.6) Bre'Amber Scott (50.5) -- who are averaging double-digit minutes are shooting 50 percent or better from the field, Schaefer realizes the offense can be better, especially when it comes to chemistry.
"To be 23-2 with four new starters, including two of them who are new to the program, these kids deserve a lot of credit," Schaefer said. "That's why I keep saying this team can be better than ever because if we get the connect -- five connected on the floor offensively and defensively throughout the course of the game -- that's where I think we can be really be good. It is my job as a coach to get that connect."
NOTE: McCowan was named a semifinalist for the Naismith Women's Defensive Player of the Year Award presented by Bona, the Atlanta Tipoff Club announced Tuesday.
After winning the inaugural award last year, the Brenham, Texas, native is one of two SEC players in the running for this year's honor. She has blocked shots at a rate of 2.6 blocked shots per game, the highest of her career, this year. According to HerHoopStats.com, McCowan blocks 9 percent of her opponents' field goal attempts inside the arc, which puts her in the top three percent of the nation.
McCowan grabs the rebound on 26.3 percent of her opportunities, the nation's best rate. She is second in the nation and leads the SEC in rebounding (13.6 rpg). She has also added 20 steals this season.
She is third among active players in Division I with 1,354 career rebounds which leads the SEC and is an MSU record. Her 248 blocks rank second among active SEC players
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Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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