STARKVILLE — Stat stuffers don’t care how their lines in the final boxscore look.
After all, if players who fill numerous columns with crooked numbers are doing their jobs, their team’s total in bold at the bottom of the page is going to be bigger than the opponent’s.
Dominique Dillingham’s numbers Thursday were far from the biggest on the final statistics for the No. 14 Mississippi State women’s basketball team’s 72-57 victory against Arkansas. But none of the 3,556 in attendance at Humphrey Coliseum would deny Dillingham had perhaps the biggest impact in helping MSU push its season-opening winning streak to 18. In the process, MSU made another piece of history in opening Southeastern Conference play 3-0 for the first time.
“I don’t think there is any doubt in anybody that watched the game tonight who the best defender on the floor is, and that is Dominique Dillingham,” MSU coach Vic Schaefer said. “Whether she was guarding 00 (Jessica Jackson) or 15 (Kelsey Brooks) in the second half, whoever it was they didn’t have much of a chance.”
Dillingham, a 5-foot-9 sophomore guard, had four of her five steals in the second half to spark a 21-3 run that the Bulldogs used to win their third-straight game against the Razorbacks. Three of Dillingham’s seven rebounds came on the offensive end to keep possessions alive. She also hit a jump shot off a pass from Morgan William with 2 minutes, 30 seconds remaining to help seal the deal.
Dillingham said the five steals on her stat line stood out the most on a line that included 1-of-3 shooting from the field and a 3-of-4 effort from the free-throw line.
“We work on it every day at practice, denying and denying handoffs,” Dillingham said. “I don’t think they were expecting me to be in the passing lane. Working on it every day in practice makes me ready for the game.”
Brooks’ drive gave Arkansas its final lead, 55-54, with 7:51 to go. That’s when Dillingham turned up the defensive intensity. She stole the ball from Jackson in the high post. She also stripped McKinley Bostad in similar fashion by reaching in and ripping the ball away. After hitting two free throws and the critical jump shot to keep MSU going, Dillingham finished her duties as No. 1 pest by stealing a handoff pass from Calli Berna. One possession later, she intercepted an inbounds pass.
If you thought that was enough, it wasn’t. With 32.9 seconds remaining and the game in hand, Dillingham hustled in the frontcourt in an effort to deny an inbounds pass to Bostad.
“I think we just decided to hook up and guard,” Dillingham said. “To win the game, we had to get a stop. Once we started getting stops, we played hard. I think that was the difference.”
With Dillingham grinding on defense, freshman guard Victoria Vivians (game-high 21 points) scored MSU’s first nine points of the second half as part of her 15-point effort in the final 20 minutes. The total marked the first time Vivians has scored in double figures in her first three SEC games.
William and sophomore forward Breanna Richardson had 11 points to help MSU outscore Arkansas 39-4 in points off the bench. Senior guard Kendra Grant added seven points, senior guard Savannah Carter had six points and provided a surge of energy in 10 minutes in the first half, senior center Martha Alwal had four points, six rebounds, and three blocked shots in 22 minutes, and junior forward Sherise Williams had a key blocked shot in the second half to help MSU stay perfect.
William also had a team-high five assists and was 4 of 4 from the free-throw line in the final two minutes to help complete the comeback.
“She just energizes the whole building,” Schaefer said.
Arkansas (10-5, 0-3) shot 60.9 percent (14 of 23) from the field in the first half to take a 40-37 halftime lead. But the Razorbacks shot a season-low 13.8 percent (4 of 29 in the second half). The shooting performance was the eighth time this season Arkansas has shot less than 30 percent from the field in a full half of basketball. The Razorbacks also committed 10 turnovers in the second half.
“You’re not going to beat a high school team when you go 4-for-29 in the second half,” Arkansas coach Jimmy Dykes said.
Brooks, a sophomore guard, paced Arkansas with 20 points on 5-of-20 shooting from the field. Brooks entered the game leading the SEC in scoring (16.6 points per game), but she needed a season-high total of shots to get there.
Dillingham split her defensive duties hounding Brooks and Jackson (nine points on 2-of-8 shooting, six turnovers). It didn’t matter that Jackson had a six-inch height advantage against Dillingham because the Bulldogs’ sophomore used her speed and quick hands to create havoc.
Dykes said he didn’t see a difference in MSU’s defense in the second half compared to the first half. He said the Razorbacks had success driving to the basket, as evidenced by their 18-of-21 effort from the free-throw line. Dykes felt his team did a good enough job attacking the rim that it could have shot more free throws. He also felt his team was “careless” with the basketball at key junctures, especially down the stretch when MSU pulled away.
“I didn’t notice (Dillingham) being any tougher than my guys,” Dykes said.
Schaefer has said Dillingham plays defense and does so many things well that it is difficult for him to take her off the floor. When asked about Dillingham after the game, Schaefer reiterated that the 19-year-old Dillingham is a special player.
“I recruited Dominique because of her toughness, so I will leave it at that,” Schaefer said. “The kid is the toughest, hardest-nose kid on our team, her and Savannah. We recruited both of those kids because of their toughness, their energy, not for their jump shot. She plays 30 minutes. I can’t get her off the floor. Nothing else matters. The kid guards the other team’s best player every night and doesn’t say anything about it. She just goes and does her job.
“She wasn’t presented with a bouquet of roses at halftime, and she came out and responded like a pro does. She took some responsibility and came out in the second half and took care of her job. That was big for us in the second half. I am not trading her for anybody. I am glad she is on my team. If I would have had to play against her tonight, I probably wouldn’t have won.”
The final boxscore also doesn’t include a charge Dillingham took in the first half. The absence of statistical categories to gauge intangibles and hustle plays forces you to read in between the lines to see how Dillingham provides vocal encouragement to her teammates and how her work ethic sets the bar for everyone. Those are aspects of the game Dillingham relishes bringing to the court for the Bulldogs.
“I just like doing whatever it is to help the team win,” Dillingham said. “I don’t mind doing all of that. I like guarding the best player on the other team. It is just something to help my team.”
If you need any proof, just ask William, who has assumed the role of the team’s energizer this season. The freshman point guard used the word “juice” to describe Dillingham’s impact on the team.
“She pumps us up on the court,” William said.
MSU will play at 2 p.m. Sunday at Vanderbilt (SEC Network +).
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.