February 12, 2018 10:43:31 AM
Adam Minichino - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- The power of five has been a key all season for the Mississippi State basketball team.
Instead of relying on one or two players to carry the offensive load, the Bulldogs have shared the wealth with a motion offense and a healthy dose of half-court sets to get all five players involved.
As a result, MSU have proven to be one of the nation's toughest teams to guard. On numerous occasions, opposing coaches have talked about "picking their poison" when their defense has tried to shut down one or two individuals.
On Sunday, Kentucky tried to clog the middle and take away 6-foot-7 junior center Teaira McCowan. The strategy limited McCowan to only one field goal in the first half.
Fortunately, Roshunda Johnson was there to pick up the slack.
The redshirt guard scored 15 of her 17 points in the first half to stake No. 2 MSU to a big lead that it used to earn a 74-55 victory before an announced crowd of 9,520. Prior to the game, MSU announced the game was a sellout.
"I thought Roshunda was very, very special in the first half," Schaefer said. "She really bailed us out of some bad sets and made some really big shots and got us where we were at halftime."
Johnson was 5-for-6 from 3-point range in the first half to help MSU (26-0, 12-0 Southeastern Conference) build a 40-22 halftime lead.
"It just changes us when you have her and Blair (Schaefer) out there that can make a few shots," Schaefer said.
MSU's ability to get multiple players in the scoring column continued in the second half even though it shot only 41 percent (25-for-61) from the field for the game. The best example came after Kentucky (12-14, 4-8) cut the deficit to 50-41 with 3 minutes, 21 seconds to go in the third quarter. The Wildcats had two opportunities to cut deeper into the lead but committed a turnover and missed a shot.
MSU responded by re-taking control. Victoria Vivians (game-high 23 points) hit a jump shot off an assist from Johnson. Johnson followed with a layup after a steal by Morgan William. McCowan (21 points, 16 rebounds) helped kick the lead to 56-43 with an offensive rebound putback at the end of the quarter.
"I think we understand a lot," Johnson said when asked if the Bulldogs appreciate or relish the importance of getting everyone involved in the offense. "That is what we do at practice, so we practice how we play. I feel like when we find the open player, we always have confidence in those people who are shooters."
Johnson was left open too often in the first half when she helped MSU surge to a 22-8 after 10 minutes. She said all of the Bulldogs have the mind-set to keep attacking, especially when they are feeling it from the field like she was in the first half.
"I think the whole team has confidence in each other," Johnson said. "That is just how we play."
Vivians continued the surge with two free throws to start the fourth quarter. William (six points, eight assists, zero turnovers) added a dagger of 3-pointer off an assist from Vivians at the 8:27 mark that gave MSU a 61-44 lead.
Kentucky trimmed the deficit to 12 later in the quarter but it couldn't get any closer.
MSU turned 19 Kentucky turnovers into a 23-5 edge in points off turnovers. The 19 turnovers were one shy of Kentucky's season high in a 65-48 victory against Auburn on Feb. 1. Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell credited MSU's defense for forcing point guard Taylor Murray into five turnovers and Maci Morris into four.
"They play extremely hard on the defensive end, and they have a great defensive system," Mitchell said. "The kids work hard in it. It is hard to play against it, especially when you don't have a lot of time."
Mitchell said the late start time of his team's game Thursday night at Missouri affected his team's preparation for MSU's pressure defense. The Bulldogs, like they have done for most of the season, played full-court player-to-player defense and used a variety of players to hound Murray and Morris.
Morris led Kentucky with 21 points. She was the only Wildcat in double figures.
"I think they're much improved," Mitchell said. " I think a lot of it has to do with 15, McCowan. She is an amazing person. You think about her as a freshman to where she is now. I know it took a lot of people around here -- her coaches and support people and strength coaches and teammates -- but somewhere down inside that kid had to make a decision that she was going to be a really good player. I am just so impressed with evolution. I think that is really is what is separating them.
"And, believe it or not, I think Victoria is better this year. I think she is playing tougher on the defensive end and she looks a year older and strong. They're an outstanding team."
McCowan had her 18th double-double of the season. Ten of her rebounds came on the offensive end. She also had three blocked shots and two steals.
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Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.