A 13-foot problem for opponents

March 17, 2017 10:10:04 AM

Slim Smith - ssmith@cdispatch.com

 

The dimensions of the court at Humphrey Coliseum are as they are throughout college basketball. The court is 94-by-50 feet, the three-point line is 20-feet, nine-inches from the basket, the basket is 10 feet from the floor. 

 

Those are not the measurements Troy University's players were most aware of today as they meets Mississippi State in the first round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at "The Hump." 

 

Of far more pressing concern is another number: 13 feet. 

 

That is the combined height of Mississippi State's centers -- 6-foot-5 senior Chinwe Okorie and 6-foot-7 sophomore Teaira McCowan. By women's basketball standards, they are ominously tall, one of the tallest center tandems in the nation, in fact. 

 

On offensive, they have combined to average 16 points and 12 rebounds per game. Defensively, they've blocked 65 shots between them and altered countless others. 

 

The powerful Okorie challenges shots. The towering McCowan discourages them. 

 

Bulldogs' point guard Morgan William, 5-foot-5 inches of fearlessness, has shown she is more than willing to go into the land of "the bigs." But she learned early on in practice not to make a habit of that when McCowan is looming in the paint. 

 

"I don't go in there with her," William said, flatly. 

 

Okorie and McCowan are not MSU's star players -- a distinction that belongs to junior guard Victoria Vivians, a national player of the year candidate, or William, who runs the show from her point guard position. 

 

But the two are, quite literally, a big problem for opponents. 

 

Any team would consider itself fortunate to have either player. In fact, MSU is lucky to have them. 

 

Both seemed destined for other schools initially, and it's hard to imagine MSU would be playing in its third consecutive NCAA Tournament had that happened. 

 

 

 

A seventh language for Chinwe Okorie 

 

Okorie is from Lagos, Nigeria, and came late to the game, first picking up a basketball at age 16. 

 

What was immediately evident was not only her height, but her strength and natural athleticism. 

 

She is, by a wide margin, the strongest player on the team and may be the strongest player in MSU women's basketball history. 

 

"She's sure the strongest person I know," said McCowan. 

 

Perhaps because she was a late arrival to the game, Okorie was not widely known in the U.S. Arkansas was the first to notice and seemed poised to sign her. 

 

"She visited Arkansas first and she liked it," said MSU associate head coach Johnnie Harris, who was the primary recruiter for both Okorie and McCowan. "Her mom liked Arkansas, too, but once Chinwe visited here, she fell in love with what she saw. It would have been easy for her to go ahead and go to Arkansas because that's where everybody in her family wanted her to go. It took maturity for her to convince them and remain poised." 

 

Those qualities have come to define Okorie during he four years in Starkville. 

 

"She's mature, very focused. Serious. She knows what she wants," Harris said. 

 

Okorie sat out her first season at MSU amid questions about her eligibility but has started 97 of her 111 games since then, including all 33 games this year. 

 

The transition was not easy at first. 

 

Okorie speaks six languages, including French and English, but she soon discovered the game has a language of its own. 

 

"One of the big challenges was making sure she understood what we were talking about," Harris said. "Take the word, 'hedge,' Teaira and the other players have known what that means since they were little kids. For Chinwe, it was something she had never heard. So when we used terminology, we had to stop and make sure she understood what it was we wanted her to do. She was kind of lost, at first." 

 

Okorie acknowledges that. 

 

"It wasn't easy, especially that first year or two," she said. "But that's really where I think I've grown the most. Now, I understand the game so much better, what the coaches want me to do. That's allowed me really help Teaira understand what she needs to do, too." 

 

 

 

McCowan: The understudy 

 

Unlike Okorie, McCowan was a highly-coveted recruit coming out of Brenham, Texas. 

 

"Everybody wanted her," Harris said. "We weren't really even in the picture." 

 

But a question over whether McCowan had the grades to qualify for a scholarship emerged. Soon, all those big-name programs cooled toward her and McCowan seemed headed for community college basketball. 

 

For Harris, that assumption created an opportunity. 

 

"I don't want to sound conceited, but I am really good at looking at transcripts to see if a player can be eligible or not," Harris said. "After calling Teaira's mom several times, she finally decided to give us her transcript. We got with our compliance people, who evaluated it and realized she had a chance to get eligible." 

 

But would she be willing to commit to the hard work that would be required? 

 

McCowan is a happy-go-lucky personality, a "mama's baby," said Harris. Although she was a fierce competitor on the floor, that tenacity hadn't translated to the classroom. 

 

It was in the classroom, though, where she first demonstrated the work ethic that showed McCowan had the potential to go from great prospect to great player. 

 

"She just changed," Harris said. "It all became serious for her. She saw the opportunity and she made good on it." 

 

 

 

Iron sharpens iron 

 

Since McCowan's arrival, the two centers have engaged in some epic practice showdowns -- two intense, highly competitive, powerful players going at one another. 

 

"I had never seen anybody close to Chinwe before I got here," McCowan said. "I thought I knew what it was all about, but when I went up against Chinwe, that really let me know what it was going to be like competing on this level. I give her a lot of credit. Going against her pushed me harder than I had ever been pushed. I had to get stronger, faster, know the game better." 

 

It was also a benefit to Okorie. 

 

"You go against her every day in practice and you know you're ready for anyone you'll go against in a game," Okorie said. "I had never had anybody as strong as Teaira to go against in practice, and that made me a better player." 

 

Last season, the two fell into well-defined roles. Okorie was the starter and played the most minutes while McCowan played about 13 minutes a game as the back-up center, allowing her to learn the game without the burden of expectations. 

 

That dynamic has changed over the course of this season, however. 

 

While their season averages are comparable in minutes, points and rebounds, the last 12 games has shown McCowan's emergence. 

 

Over that period, McCowan is averaging eight more minutes per game than Okorie, and 9.7 points per game to Okorie's 4.8. The two have combined to score in double figures 24 times, but of Okorie's 11 double-figure scoring games, only one has come in the last dozen games. By contrast, seven of McCowan's 13 double-figure scoring games have come over that span. 

 

That sort of production has turned heads. At the end of regular season, McCowan was named the SEC's "Sixth Woman of the Year," which goes to the top non-starter in the league. 

 

Suddenly, there is a real question about which player is "Da Woman" at the center position. 

 

Although Okorie has started every game, it is matter MSU coach Vic Schaefer is still turning over in his mind. 

 

"It is a valid question and something that has been on my mind a lot," Schaefer said during Thursday's pre-tournament press conference. He has yet to pull the trigger to change it, though. 

 

"If you go through a 33-game schedule like we have, your kids get comfortable with how things go," he said. "You have to be careful about changing things up." 

 

For Okorie, in particular, accepting a different, somewhat diminished, is not always easy. 

 

"Of course," she said. "Sometimes it can be tough because you want to be out there, but for the most part, I just have to give credit to Teaira for her being about to step up when her number is called. When you see what's she's doing and how much she's helping the team, well, you have to accept that." 

 

McCowan approaches the topic with diplomacy. She said she is not worried about how much playing time she gets, but how she responds when the opportunity presents itself. 

 

"The minutes I get are critical," McCowan said. "So I try to be in the moment. When I get my chance, I either need to fix what's broken or keep going with what's working." 

 

Harris said she has seen situations where competing for playing time had led to dissension. 

 

"Absolutely," she said. "But the interesting thing about Chinwe and Teaira is that they compete with each other, but when Chinwe is on the floor Teaira has her back. And when Teaira is on the floor, and they call a foul on Teaira, Chinwe is the first one on the bench to jump up and yell, ''Hey, that's a bad call!' 

 

"I think that's the unselfishness of Chinwe. Teaira has been playing more minutes, but their relationship hasn't changed," she added. "We tell them it doesn't matter who starts or who finishes. What matters is who wins." 

 

Okorie and McCowan need only point to the won/loss record for the answer to that question. 

 

At 29-4, Mississippi State has set a school record for wins in a season.

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is ssmith@cdispatch.com.