TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It’s all about eye contact.
Diamber Johnson has been playing with Kendra Grant for only 16 games, but point guards have a knack for finding shooters.
Sometimes, though, you need a second chance.
Kendra Grant was more than happy to oblige on two occasions Thursday night.
The freshman guard grabbed a key offensive rebound and then hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with 1 minute, 18 seconds remaining in the game to lift the Mississippi State University women’s basketball team to a 66-61 victory against the University of Alabama before a crowd of 1,182 at Foster Auditorium.
“I guess my defender just forgot about me,” said Grant, who had 13 points (four rebounds) and was one of four MSU players to score in double figures. “(Johnson) saw me and I saw her, we made eye contact, and she got it to me and I hit it.”
Johnson said she was trying to tip a deflected pass to Grant before Grant corralled it in between two defenders. Behind both of them, MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis called timeout to help the Lady Bulldogs keep possession with eight seconds left on the shot clock.
Johnson (game-high 22 points, five assists, four rebounds) said MSU didn’t script Grant to shoot a 3-pointer out of the timeout, but she saw Grant was open on the left wing against the 1-2-2 zone. The freshman from Richland High didn’t hesitate to drain her third trey of the game to help MSU (11-5, 1-2 Southeastern Conference) snap a two-game losing streak and win its fifth-straight game in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
“Making eye contact is really a good thing in this game, isn’t it?,” Fanning-Otis said. “Getting the ball to the open person is the best offense you can run. Make it simple. Make people guard you, and Kendra knocked down some shots. Making eye contact is so important to assists and knowing where the other person is.”
Johnson said Grant’s ability to step up and to knock down a clutch shot is just another sign of her maturation. The 5-foot-11 freshman is showing a greater willingness to use her 3-point shooting range to draw defenses and capitalize on their aggressiveness with upfakes to go by them and to get shots closer to the basket. Johnson said she and the Lady Bulldogs trust Grant can knock down shots even though she entered the game shooting only 28.5 percent from the field.
“She gets the look in her eyebrow, and she knows I am going to get on her when she doesn’t have confidence to take the shot,” Johnson said. “Tonight she stepped up and did what we needed her to do.”
Porsha Porter (16 points, five rebounds, four assists, four steals) hit 2 of 3 free throws with 2:25 to go to tie the game at 61. To that point, MSU had matched its season high for 3-pointers attempted in a game (25) and had largely relied on moving the basketball to take advantage in the movement of the defense, which stretched to contest wing shooters. Johnson, though, found a seam and took a jump shot that missed and was rebounded by Grant. The Lady Bulldogs then tried to re-set the offense before the tipped pass set off a scramble for the ball.
“I saw it and then I saw it in the air, and I couldn’t tell if she was going to get it or if I was going to get it,” Grant said. “One of us was going to come up with it.”
Johnson said she was trying to watch Alabama’s defensive shifts on the play prior to the pass to Grant. She said all it took was a little eye contact between the players for her to realize there was an opening to deliver the ball.
“I knew was going to be open,” Johnson said. “It was just a trust factor. She was open and I was just going to the open man.”
Grant did all of her damage behind the arc in the second half. She had only two points in 10 minutes in the first half due to foul trouble. But she said she gained confidence after missing badly on her first shot of the second half. She hit her first trey with 15:42 remaining in the game to help push MSU back from an 11-point first-half deficit. Her second completed the journey and tied the game at 59 with 4:15 to go.
Neither Grant nor Johnson said it was the plan for MSU to take 26 3-pointers. They said they took advantage of what the defense gave them and moved the basketball to get 14 assists, which helped offset 18 turnovers.
Grant’s final trey was MSU’s ninth of the game, which was one off the season-high of 10 against Nevada.
“It is the first SEC win and we really, really needed this one,” Grant said.
Alabama (10-8, 0-4) used 11 points by Jasmine Robinson and Celiscia Farmer (3 of 3 on 3-pointers) in the first half to take control. The Crimson Tide won the majority of the hustle plays, and took the ball away from the Lady Bulldogs several times for easy baskets, only to see their offense bog down late in the game. Aneesah Daniels’ score from the low block with 3:47 to play gave Alabama its last lead, 61-59. Alabama missed its final seven shots and committed two turnovers down the stretch.
“We played better and gave better effort and played hard, but we still had situations we didn’t play as smart as we need to play,” said Alabama coach Wendell Hudson, whose team had only nine players dressed out due to injuries.
Farmer finished with a team-high 15 points, while Robinson and Kyra Crosby each added 11. Alabama had a 37-34 rebounding edge, including 15 on the offensive end, and a 32-4 edge in bench scoring, but MSU hit one too many 3-pointers to negate those advantages.
“We know Mississippi State is a good 3-point shooting team,” Hudson said. “There were times we were in a zone when we didn’t rotate out and get a hand up on the shooters. They did a great job of making shots. You have to give them credit.”
Catina Bett had all 11 of her points in the first half for MSU, which will play host to No. 19 Georgia at 2 p.m. Sunday.
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.