January 6, 2017 10:04:17 AM
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- Vic Schaefer hasn't been happy with how the Mississippi State women's
basketball team has practiced in recent days, despite the Bulldogs' undefeated record to start the season.
The Mississippi State coach finally saw that lack of focus -- along with perhaps a dash of pressure -- show itself in a game, a 59-51 victory at Arkansas on Thursday night at Bud Walton Arena.
Behind 14 points and a career-best 15 rebounds from Chinwe Okorie, the Bulldogs (16-0, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) led throughout but narrowly held on.
Mississippi State is two victories from matching the school record for best start -- 18-0 in 2014-15 -- but it shot only 36.5 percent (23 of 63) and narrowly avoided matching its season low for points.
"We may have a couple kids who are feeling a little bit of the number," Schaefer said. "The 15-0, it's more the 0 than the 15, and I think we were a little tight tonight, quite honestly."
Morgan William had 15 points to lead Mississippi State, which has ascended to a program-best ranking with its fast start, while Victoria Vivians added 13 points on 5-of-19 shooting.
Malica Monk led the Razorbacks (11-4, 0-2) with 17 points, while Jessica Jackson added 12 -- her 15th straight game in double figures.
Arkansas entered Thursday looking for its first win over a ranked opponent in nearly a year, having last defeated then-No. 24 Missouri on Jan. 17, 2016. The Razorbacks trailed by as many as 13 points in the first half, but they closed to within 51-49 late in the game.
"You have to commend Arkansas," Schaefer said. "They came in the second half and played very well and defended us very well. We were really bad offensively tonight. We need to give credit to Arkansas for that. It's hard to believe we held them to 29 percent shooting and it was a nail-biter.
Jackson, however, missed two free throws that would have tied the game and William hit four free throws in the final minute to help MSU close out the victory -- pressure or no pressure about remaining undefeated.
"I honestly don't think it's the zero (losses)," MSU junior guard Blair Schaefer said. "... I think sometimes we think we can just kick it on for game time, and tonight showed sometimes it's not that way."
MSU only hit two 3-pointers in the second half -- each came from Schaefer and both were critical. She also drew a couple of charges on the defensive end.
Schaefer opened the fourth quarter with a trey for a 48-39 lead. Her next 3-pointer came with 5 minutes, 18 seconds left and help push the lead to 51-45. Arkansas was held without a field goal in the final 4:59.
"If the Schaefer kid is not on the bus, we don't win that game," coach Schaefer said. "She made some really good plays when we had to have them, both offensively and defensively. We had not been practicing well. Some of the kids are feeling the number (no losses). We had some players that were tight tonight."
Okorie, a 6-foot-5 senior center, scored all 14 of her points in the first half on 7-of-10 shooting, but she was held scoreless in the second half and missed all five of her shots. Still, she managed to set a career best for rebounds -- topping the 14 she had against Louisiana Tech in 2014.
The win helped MSU remain one of three unbeaten teams remaining in the country, joining No. 1 UConn and No. 18 Virginia Tech. MSU will play Tennessee on Sunday in Knoxville, Tennessee. Following that game, it has three more to play before a matchup against No. 5 South Carolina on Jan. 23 in Columbia, South Carolina.
After starting the season 9-0, Arkansas has lost four of their last six games. Still, the Razorbacks' 11-4 record is a far improvement over last season -- when they finished 12-18 in Jimmy Dykes' second season as coach.
"Our confidence isn't shaken at all," Dykes said. "We know we can play with anybody in this league."
MSU was 23 of 63 from the field (36.5 percent), 2 of 11 from 3-point range (18.2), and 11 of 16 from the free-throw line (68.8). Arkansas was 16 of 54 from the field (29.6 percent), 3 of 13 from 3-point range (23.1), and 16 of 23 from the free-throw line (69.6).
MSU held a 50-34 rebounding advantage. The Bulldogs had 12 assists and 18 turnovers, while the Razorbacks had six assists and 17 turnovers.
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