March 6, 2013 1:57:28 AM
Three games ago, Martha Alwal showed what she is capable of when she applies herself.
The 6-foot-4 sophomore center rebounded from a scoreless performance in a loss to LSU with an 18-point, 15-rebound, eight-blocked shots effort in a 75-51 victory against the University of Alabama on Feb. 21 in Starkville.
The performance was one of a league-leading 16 double-doubles that helped Alwal earn a modicum of redemption after she played only 19 minutes and had one rebound in the home loss to LSU on Feb. 17.
Just as Alwal sought to prove herself after a lackluster effort, the Mississippi State University women's basketball team will be in a similar position today. Coming off a disappointing loss to Auburn University in its regular-season finale, MSU (13-16, 5-11 Southeastern Conference) will take on Alabama (12-17, 2-14) at 5 p.m. today (Fox Sports South, WNMQ-FM 103.1) in the first round of the SEC tournament at The Arena at Gwinnett Center in Duluth, Ga.
The winner of today's game will advance to take on the University of South Carolina at 1:30 p.m. The loser will be done for the season.
"We were disappointed (after the Auburn game) because we feel we could have won that game," Alwal said. "We were supposed to win that game, so it was a really disappointing loss."
Alwal received news Tuesday that she was named second-team All-SEC and to the league's all-defensive team. The individual honors helped erase the memory of the 74-65 loss to Auburn, but Alwal and the Bulldogs still have plenty left to accomplish. Alwal said she didn't know if MSU was still on a high from its 50-38 victory against then-No. 11 University of Georgia that it wasn't ready to play Auburn. A victory in that game would have helped MSU secure the No. 9 seed based on the fact it had tiebreakers against the University of Missouri and the University of Arkansas. As it turned out, MSU fell behind 40-24 at halftime against Auburn and committed 31 turnovers, which overshadowed an effort that saw it shoot better than 50 percent from the field and win the rebounding battle.
"I don't even like talking about that game," Alwal said. "They wanted it more than we did, and we couldn't handle the pressure of their trapping defense."
Still, MSU rallied in the second half to cut the deficit to three points, only to see Auburn regroup and pull away. Alwal said MSU coach Vic Schaefer has been big about leaving things in the past, so she said she and her teammates will do their best to come out with a lot of energy today, even if there isn't a big crowd for the first game of the five-day, 13-team event.
"We can't do anything about it, and we're going into (today) excited about our opportunity," Alwal said. "If we win we play South Carolina, and we think we have a chance against them, too. We're really positive going into the tournament."
Alwal also has reason to be even more confident given the league coaches voted her second-team All-SEC and to the league's all-defensive team. Ten of Alwal's double-doubles came in the SEC, where she averaged 12.6 points and 10 rebounds. She led the SEC with 18 double-figure rebounding games and 9.9 rebounds a game. Alwal averages 12.3 ppg. and is 17th in the nation in blocked shots (74). She averaged a league-best 2.7 blocks in SEC games.
While the numbers rank with the conference, Schaefer has encouraged Alwal to try to do even more. He has said several times this season that Alwal, who started 15 games as a freshman, has the potential to get 20 points and 20 rebounds a game. The honors Alwal received Tuesday could push her closer to the realization that those numbers are more attainable than she thinks.
"I am just really excited. I think I am more happy that it is from the league coaches and they think I am deserving to be on the team with the other girls who are amazing basketball players," Alwal said. "(The question is) do I settle or do I want more?"
Alwal said the honors will motivate her to work hard to become a first-team All-SEC performer and an All-American.
Sophomore Kendra Grant hopes the accolades will help Alwal realize she can do even more.
"I am beyond proud of Martha," Grant said. "I know the struggles she has gone through this season and the type of person she can be on the court, the best she can be on the court. Now she knows the coaches look at her like this and she feels she has a standard to uphold. Now she knows that she has that honor she has to play like a beast every night like she knows she can."
Grant agreed with Alwal that the loss to Auburn "hurt" and that she felt the Bulldogs missed an opportunity. She said they will do their best today to carve out an extended stay in Georgia and to live up to the standard, especially on defense, they set in holding Georgia to its lowest shooting percentage dating back to at least 1990.
"Coming off a loss like that (to Auburn) will put the fire in us to come out strong and play hard like we should have against Auburn," Grant said. "We know now. We have done some good things that previous teams haven't done. We beat No. 11 Georgia, we beat Missouri, and we beat Arkansas. Those are teams that were supposed to beat us. Having those under our belt should be a big confidence builder. We have beaten Alabama once, but it is not going to be a walk in the park. We're going to have to come out strong on the defensive end, and if we do what we should do we can get that win."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.