STARKVILLE — Martha Alwal grew accustomed to being the “big girl.”
As a standout at Worthington High School in Minnesota, the 6-foot-4 center often was the tallest player on the basketball court. Typically, Alwal towered over opponents, and rarely did she face another post player who was tall enough to look her in the eyes.
Now a freshman on the Mississippi State women’s basketball team, Alwal remains one of the tallest players on her team. No longer, though, does Alwal go stretches without seeing playing against someone her height — or taller — or an opponent who wants to play physically in the paint.
Welcome to Division I college basketball.
Two games into her transition, Alwal has shown she has potential to hold her own and to be a consistent contributor this season. Alwal earned Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Week honors Monday after grabbing 11 rebounds and blocking a school-record 10 shots against Jacksonville State and scoring 14 points and getting 11 rebounds against Xavier.
Alwal and MSU will try to go 3-0 on the young season at 7 tonight when they play host to Alcorn State at Humphrey Coliseum.
“I think I have started off well,” Alwal said. “My rebounding and all of that stuff is there, but I can get better offensively and get more active and better defensively. I need help with a lot of stuff, but I think I am doing OK so far.”
ESPN HoopGurlz rated Alwal a three-star prospect coming out of high school. She was ranked the No. 16 center in the nation, and the 20th-best player in the state of Minnesota by gprep.net.
MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis saw Alwal play on a recruiting visit to the state of Florida. She immediately compared Alwal’s potential to the skills of former MSU standout Chanel Mokango, a junior college transfer from the Congo. While Mokango may have been a more polished offensive player, particularly when it comes to shooting range, both players have long arms to affect shots down low and have athletic ability that makes them versatile.
Fanning-Otis said Alwal has a “tremendous upside” in part because she is such a good student of the game and that she wants to get better in all facets.
“She has good athletic ability and she is learning the game,” Fanning-Otis said. “Every day is a new learning session. She is paying attention and she is asking good questions and she seems to be getting stronger and more physical.”
Fanning-Otis said Alwal doesn’t have a specific plan to add weight or strength. Instead, she feels Alwal will gain that strength through repetition and day-to-day basketball training.
Alwal said the physical play in college is the biggest adjustment she has had to make. She said she never lifted weights in high school, and even though she started lifting just a bar when she arrived at MSU, she said she already has made strides and feels stronger since she arrived on campus in August.
“I have seen a lot of improvements,” Alwal said. “I am running better, and getting up and down the floor I am not as winded. I think I definitely need to get stronger and I need to bench more. I think that will help me a lot.”
Alwal also wants to improve the technical parts of her game. She said she feels comfortable facing the basket out to 15 feet. She said she wants to improve her ballhandling ability so she will be able to take post players off the dribble with the right or the left hand.
At this point, though, she considers herself more of a defensive player. Her reach and height already have allowed her to block several shots without even leaving the ground. Things figure to get a little tougher in January when MSU enters SEC play, but Alwal figures to be even stronger by then.
Fanning-Otis has been encouraged by Alwal’s ability to score a variety of ways. She feels Alwal and seniors Catina Bett and Ashley Brown give the Lady Bulldogs a solid post presence that she hopes will get even better as the season progresses.
“She is quick. She is mobile, and I think her strength is she doesn’t mind contact. She just has to get used to it,” Fanning-Otis said. “As she learns the game and continues to get stronger and she will grow into that. She has a good feel for the game and is a real team player. She seems to enjoy playing and is getting tougher every day.”
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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