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Minichino column: MSU women stay true to formula in road win

 

Adam Minichino

 

 

ATHENS, Ga. 

 

Each day brings another source of pride for Vic Schaefer. 

 

More than five years ago, Schaefer had to wonder what he had gotten himself into when he looked around Humphrey Coliseum and saw a crowd of 455 for the Mississippi State women's basketball team's exhibition game against Shorter. 

 

A week later, MSU drew a crowd of 1,234 for its season-opening victory against Houston at the Hump. Given the program's recent history, the number was pretty typical. 

 

These days, the only thing ordinary about MSU is it attracts a big following wherever it goes. 

 

The latest win -- an 86-62 victory against Georgia at Stegeman Coliseum -- came following a 6 p.m. start time on New Year's Eve. For some teams, a road game hours from a new year would have been a recipe for disaster. Instead, MSU stayed true to its formula of solid post play from Teaira McCowan and balanced scoring from the perimeter. 

 

McCowan has been sensational. The 6-foot-7 junior center averaged 33.5 points, 13 rebounds, 2.5 blocked shots, and 1.5 steals in two games last week to help No. 5 MSU (No. 3 in USA Today Coaches poll) improve to 15-0 and 1-0 in the Southeastern Conference. 

 

For her efforts, McCowan was named Tuesday the SEC Player of the Week. The honor was McCowan's second in the last three weeks, and her third of the season, which ties LaToya Thomas (2002) for the most by a Bulldog. The honor also went to a MSU player for the third-straight week. McCowan won it Dec. 19 and Victoria Vivians received it a week ago. 

 

McCowan averaged 8.7 points and 7.1 rebounds in 19.7 minutes last season while splitting time with senior center Chinwe Okorie. McCowan, who shot 56.9 percent from the field, played some of her best basketball of the season in the postseason to help push MSU to a program-record 34-win season and its first appearance in the national title game. 

 

McCowan's improvement is a key reason why a second-straight trip to the Final Four isn't as hard to believe as it might have been at the beginning of the season, when MSU had to figure out how to replace four seniors. 

 

McCowan has helped to answer that question by shooting 66.8 percent from the field, which leads the SEC. She is one of three SEC players -- South Carolina's A'ja Wilson and Texas A&M's Anriel Howard -- to average double digits in points and rebounds. On top of averaging a team-high 20.3 points and 12.5 rebounds, McCowan is fifth in the league in blocks (2.1) and first in the SEC in offensive rebounds per game (6.1). She is doing it all in 26.3 minutes per game, which isn't even in the top 30 in the SEC. 

 

McCowan's efficiency against Georgia helped her notch her seventh-straight double-double, 11th of the season, and 21st of her career. Considering McCowan takes motivation well, she leads Wilson in double-doubles this season by one and trails the senior All-American by 19 in career totals. 

 

If McCowan continues to produce, she figures to pass Howard, who also has 21 career double-doubles, and Missouri's Jordan Frericks (25) and move into second place among active players in the SEC. 

 

McCowan enters MSU's game against Arkansas at 8 p.m. Thursday (SEC Network) at the Hump 26 points shy of hitting 1,000 for her career. It would be a great night to reach the milestone given MSU will play next Sunday at LSU.  

 

You can bet there will be a few more than 455 fans at the Hump to cheer McCowan. Who knows, McCowan might even give the fans a wave when she comes out of the tunnel for pre-game introductions. 

 

There is no telling how good McCowan can be. She has been engaged and on a mission, as has Vivians, who also is playing like a first-team All-American.  

 

As much as McCowan has improved, Vivians deserves just as much credit. Remember when Vivians was called a "volume" scorer? Remember when announcers used to refer to her as a "streaky" player who could shoot a team in or out of a game? Vivians no longer is that player. She is more patient. She shares the basketball better, as evidenced by her 58 assists. Through 15 games last season, Vivians had 24 assists. In her first two seasons combined, Vivians had 71. 

 

In addition to taking better shots, Vivians is driving to the rim more and forcing defenses to react. The senior guard's improved ballhandling has fit perfectly into MSU's four-guard rotation. It enables the Bulldogs to space the floor and to make opponents match up with shooters like Blair Schaefer and Roshunda Johnson. Point guard Morgan William can shoot it, too, and backup point guard Jazzmun Holmes has kept the offense in fifth gear with her attacking style of play. 

 

All of it as helped make Schaefer proud. Today, fans will be able to see how proud Schaefer is of his team when he plays host to the program's second Hail State luncheon. Later today, Schaefer will be part of the two-hour season premiere of Dawg Talk at The Veranda in Starkville. The show will start with MSU men's basketball coach Ben Howland from 7-8 p.m. Schaefer will be on the show from 8-9 p.m. 

 

If you go or if you follow the show @HailStateMBK, @HailStateWBK or @HailStateVoice, ask Schaefer how proud he is of his team. He most likely will credit the fans for their support. MSU's increased fan support is a source of pride for Schaefer and his staff because they have worked hard to build a following. 

 

Sunday was another one of those days. Schaefer had to smile when he turned to his left to see MSU fans packed into the section behind his bench.  

 

On Thursday, Schaefer will smile again when his good friend Mike Neighbors, who was head coach at Washington last season, comes to town. It will be another chance to showcase one of the best atmospheres in Division I women's basketball. When Schaefer was hired in March 2012, there weren't many who believed that was possible. Today, it is a reality that makes Schaefer smile and pushes him to be just a little bit better every day. 

 

Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. You can email him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ctsportseditor.

 

Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.

 

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