STARKVILLE — Savannah Carter is learning how important she is to the Mississippi State women’s basketball team.
When she is sitting on the bench next to Vic Schaefer, MSU is without its spark and struggles to create offense from its defense.
Things are drastically different when Carter is on the floor.
Even though Carter isn’t the biggest or the fastest player, she has a knack for making plays, and typically is in the middle of pileups that result in the floor burns that are near and dear to Schaefer’s heart.
On Sunday, Carter helped create a scrum near midcourt that provided a lift at the perfect time. Carter and Katia May combined to make a steal that led to a basket in a key second-half run that energized the Bulldogs and the crowd of 2,719 at Humphrey Coliseum. MSU then responded with another run later in the half and pulled away for a 69-62 victory against Missouri.
“In the second half when we made our run, that’s what I am used to,” Schaefer said. “I am used to five(-second) counts and coaches having to call timeout to save possessions and kids jumping in front of handoffs stealing balls and going down and laying it in. That is what I am working for. That is the kind of basketball I want us to play. When we made our run in the second half, that’s what we were doing. We were really making them uncomfortable.”
Dominique Dillingham had a career-high 21 points in another all-around solid effort. The freshman hit a career-best five 3-pointers and also grabbed six rebounds, handed out four assists, and made two steals in 37 minutes. She also did her fair share on defense, taking five of the team’s seven charges.
Classmate Breanna Richardson added 15 points, while junior center Martha Alwal had her seventh double-double of the season (13 points, 13 rebounds), and 26th of her career to help MSU (15-6, 2-5 Southeastern Conference) snap a three-game losing streak.
After the game, though, Schaefer and the players were talking about the play early in the second half that turned the momentum. Prior to that turning point, Carter had a steal for a layup and Dillingham hit a 3-pointer to set the stage. The game-changer followed, as Carter broke up a pass but couldn’t control it. The loose ball moved toward center court, where Carter dove in an attempt to gain possession. Instead, the ball remained up for grabs. That’s when May joined in the fray, taking the floor in an effort to collect it. She gained possession and was credited with the steal and the pass Richardson took to score on a layup and convert a three-point play.
“We were just talking about that before we walked in (to the postgame interview room),” Carter said. “Coach just started telling us you don’t get what you wish for, you get what you work for. I think us as guards have really bought into that. He gets on to us every day in practice about taking away the handoff and getting on to the floor, so thank God Bre was right there for Katia’s pass.”
Carter scored only four points, but she had four rebounds, two assists, and two steals in 28 minutes, which matched her longest stint since she played 31 minutes in a victory against Southern Miss on Dec. 14. She could have played longer if not for an offensive foul in which she crashed in for a rebound and a third personal foul with 44.5 seconds left in the first half.
May also didn’t light up the stat sheet, but she had seven points, four rebounds, six assists (four turnovers) and a steal in 28 minutes before fouling out. Schaefer praised Carter, May, and Dillingham in his opening remarks after the game by saying guard play is a part of the formula for winning in the SEC.
“I just saw one girl running in and I just dove for it,” May said. “That was my first instinct, and I saw Bre and she went and laid it up. … I think it gave us a big jump. That was a defensive play, so we felt like if we continued to not let them catch and to stop handoffs we could do what we just did and get and-ones.”
MSU needed every one of its charges and defensive plays because Missouri (13-7, 2-5) answered with a run of its own to tie the game at 44. Richardson was whistled for a technical foul on the four-point play that tied the game after she slammed the ball to the court and caught after a layup by Jordan Frericks, who missed the free throw that would have given the Tigers the lead.
MSU then used a 9-1 spurt that featured a jumper by May, two free throws by May, a 3-pointer by Dillingham off an assist from May, and a basket by Alwal off an assist from Carter to take a 53-45 lead with 8 minutes, 35 seconds to play.
The lead grew to as many as nine, 56-47, before Missouri surged back and had a chance to cut the deficit to two points, but Kayla McDowell missed a layup with a little more than four minutes remaining. MSU forced three of Missouri’s 20 turnovers down the stretch, including Dillingham’s fifth charge with 42.6 seconds to go, and allowed only one 3-pointer in the final six-plus minutes. Missouri came into the game averaging a league-best nine treys per game. It finished 6 of 19 from 3-point range. MSU’s total of six was more than it had in the past five games. It also matched the Bulldogs’ high for a game this season.
Missouri coach Robin Pingeton liked the looks her team had from distance, especially in the first half. She credited Carter for giving MSU a lift with her defense.
“She is just a feisty player. She plays hard and is very aggressive,” Pingeton said. “I thought she really stirred it up for them tonight, and she did a nice job.”
Pingeton also praised the play of Dillingham. She said she wouldn’t have expected Dillingham to hit five 3-pointers considering she came into the game 9 of 41 from beyond the arc.
“They never seem to follow the scouting report, do they?” Pingeton said. “She is a nice player. We knew offensively she is one of their better perimeter kids on getting to the offensive boards. I did not see 5 for 9 coming from the 3-point line. I could live with the first three in the first half. In the second half, we said we have to make sure we tighten up on her a little bit and she got away from us.”
Coming of an 87-85 overtime loss against Ole Miss on Thursday, MSU turned to its defense to make sure another game didn’t get away from it. It limited the Tigers to 9 of 24 (37.5 percent) from the field in the second half after they shot 50 percent (13 of 26) in the first half.
“The defense really sparked us,” Dillingham said. “It seemed like every time we got a big stop we followed that up with a score.”
Schaefer pointed to the team’s continued growth and maturation and its toughness in answering Missouri’s challenges and punching back.
“To see them have that big, whatever it was at midcourt, and bodies everywhere and we are trying to get the ball and to come out of there with it and get a layup out of it, that gets the crowd going, it gets the kids going,” Schaefer said. “It is just a big momentum boost for us. It just reinforces what we are trying to teach these kids. If you will play hard, that goes a long way toward what we are trying to do defensively.”
NOTES: MSU won a home conference game for the first time this season. … Dillingham’s scoring total was the most for a MSU freshman since Tysheka Grimes scored 28 against South Carolina in the 2006-07 season. … MSU had a 39-35 rebounding edge, including 16 offensive rebounds. That edge allowed it to snap a three-game stretch where it had been outrebounded. … MSU will play at 7 p.m. Thursday at No. 14 LSU.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.