March 19, 2017 11:35:58 PM
Adam Minichino - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE -- The Mississippi State women's basketball team's "two-headed monster" was load to handle Sunday afternoon.
Buoyed by a combined 20 points and 18 rebounds from centers Teaira McCowan and Chinwe Okorie, second-seeded MSU defeated seventh-seeded DePaul 92-71 in the second round of the NCAA tournament before a crowd of 6,035 at Humphrey Coliseum.
MSU (31-4) will take on the winner of the game tonight between third-seeded Washington and sixth-seeded Oklahoma at a time to be determined Friday in the Sweet 16 in Oklahoma City.
McCowan, who earned her second-straight start, had eight points, nine rebounds, two assists, and a steal in 17 minutes. Okorie added 12 points and nine rebounds (five offensive) in 20 minutes to help the Bulldogs control points in the paint (52-28) and second-chance points (19-10).
"I think those two are kind of feeding off each other," MSU coach Vic Schaefer said.
MSU capitalized on its edge in the post even though the 6-foot-7 McCowan and the 6-5 Okorie had to play most of their defense on the perimeter against an opponent that put five shooters on the floor. When 6-3 senior center Jacqui Grant got into foul trouble, DePaul didn't have any size to try to take away MSU's inside game. As a result, the Blue Demons double- and triple-teamed the Bulldogs' centers when they received the ball. McCowan and Okorie handled the attention by going 8-for-15 from the field.
"They did a great job of jamming us down low, and we were never really able to come up with any good, solid consistent answers," DePaul coach Doug Bruno said. "They have other good players, and they make it really difficult to just pack it in and guard the block because there are players who can make shots our on the floor who are really talented.
"It was a really difficult challenge for us, especially when Jacqui went out. We tried to extend passing lanes and tried to reduce the ability to get the ball inside, but that was really difficult to do."
Grant scored only three points and had one rebound in 12 minutes before fouling out. It matched her fewest minutes in a game this season.
McCowan and Okorie also did a good job recognizing where help defense was coming from and passing the ball quickly out of the post to the perimeter to keep the offense flowing.
"When teams come and double- and triple-team us, we just know we have to find out where the help came from and kick it to the back side or kick it to the open shooter," McCowan said. "Wherever they are we have to find them."
McCowan did that twice in the third quarter when she found Blair Schaefer (tied for game-high scoring honors with 18 points) for two 3-pointers. The second assist came off a quick pass to the left corner that helped the Bulldogs extend their lead to 57-43.
"I feel like we had a little more time to get our shots off," Schaefer said. "They were really putting a big emphasis on our posts because it is hard to guard our post players (because) they are really tall and they are really good. They had a mismatch, and I just feel like when they put so much emphasis on our post players, it opens so many doors for our perimeter, so we knew we had to have our feet ready to make those shots."
McCowan and Okorie entered the game with a combined average of 15.5 points and 12.4 rebounds. They both started the day shooting 57.1 percent from the field.
The double-figure scoring game by Okorie was her first in 11 games. That stretch included two scoreless games and another where she had only one point.
"Chinwe has been practicing well," coach Schaefer said. "I really think her coming off the bench has helped her. I thought she had great presence today. She had good feet. She really looked at ease and was calm out there, not so in a hurry to make her move."
Okorie also played well defensively. After DePaul shot over her several times in the first half, Okorie got up close on Tanita Allen (13 points) to deny her space to launch a 3-pointer. The defense extended the possession so Dominique Dillingham was able to take a charge on Allen. Okorie then scored in the lane off an assist from Jazzmun Holmes (career-high 14 points, six assists).
Okorie said the Bulldogs used another opportunity to send the seniors out in style as motivation. She said the memory of an 82-64 loss to Tennessee on Senior Day on Feb. 26 always will be there, but she said the Bulldogs had that game and another trip to Sweet 16 to fuel them. This year, though, Okorie said getting to the Sweet 16 won't be enough.
"We have been to the Sweet 16 last year, so we knew how that felt and we knew we couldn't stop short this year," Okorie said. "If we said our goal is to go even further, we can't stop right now, so I think that is what gave us the push and energy."
Schaefer, who also earned her second-straight start, agreed and credited the post players for being aggressive and helping to set the tone.
"Our post players really wanted the ball, and we tried our best to get it to them," Schaefer said. "They knew they had three little ones coming at them, so they were looking at the perimeter and we found our shooters, and we were just making our shots and executing really well as a team."
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Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.