JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — This is the team Vic Schaefer wants to coach.
Coming off a lackluster effort Monday in a rout of Southeastern Louisiana, the No. 8 Mississippi State women’s basketball team wanted to redeem itself in a nationally televised broadcast against No. 20 South Florida.
Schaefer and the Bulldogs got what they wanted.
Victoria Vivians scored a game-high 23 points and Morgan William added 15 to lead MSU to a 68-58 victory in the first game of the SEC/AAC Challenge at Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena.
“Night and day,” MSU coach Vic Schaefer said when asked to compare his team’s effort Wednesday to its 81-41 victory against Southeastern Louisiana. “I think better teams peak the interest of our players. That is part of growing up a little bit. I want everybody to peak our players’ interest.
Florida and Central Florida played in the second game of the doubleheader, which wasn’t completed in time for this edition.
MSU (13-1) won despite scoring only six points in the fourth quarter. The Bulldogs’ recipe for victory was increased intensity that forced the Bulls (7-3) into a season-high 24 turnovers. MSU capitalized on those mistakes for a 25-15 edge in points off turnovers.
MSU also did a solid job defensively on senior guard Courtney Williams, who entered the game averaging 24.3 points per game. Williams had a season-low 12 points on a season-worst 4-of-20 shooting effort from the field.
USF coach Jose Fernandez said both factors were keys in the final result.
“I thought Mississippi State did a very good job defending us,” Fernandez said. “They bumped us off our cuts and were pressuring our point guards and our wings and pushing us out to 28 feet (when we started our offense). That really hurt us.”
Schaefer agreed and praised the effort of junior guard Dominique Dillingham, who started the game guarding Williams. But Dillingham wasn’t the only one who defended well. Schaefer said a key was the ability of all of the Bulldog defenders to push the Bulls out beyond their comfort zone on offense.
“We played our tails off,” Schaefer said of the defense on Williams.
Leading 42-30 at halftime, MSU continued its momentum in the third quarter. Even after losing Dillingham to her fourth foul at the 7-minute, 53-second mark and Vivians to her third foul at the 6:09 mark, MSU extended its lead to 51-34 on a 3-pointer by Kayla Nevitt. William, Chinwe Okorie (eight points, 11 rebounds), Breanna Richardson (six points, four rebounds), and Blair Schaefer scored in the final five-plus minutes of the quarter in a balanced effort that saw MSU extend its lead to as many as 22 (62-40) with 27.4 seconds remaining in the quarter.
After three quarters, USF had 20 turnovers. It entered the matchup with only one game — a 74-70 loss at St. John’s — in which it has committed 20 or more turnovers in a game. The Bulls had 21 in the loss to the Red Storm.
But USF didn’t go quietly. In a turnover-filled fourth quarter, the Bulls cut the deficit to 62-49 with 5:11 remaining. The Bulldogs were their worst enemy in the Bulls’ 7-0 run, going 7:11 without a field goal dating back to the 2:30 mark of the third quarter.
MSU did just enough in the fourth quarter, as Vivians had all of MSU’s points. She scored four of the points on drives to the basket to finish 10 of 19 from the field. Schaefer still would like Vivians, who was 1 of 2 from the free-throw line, to go to the foul line more, but Fernandez said he saw Vivians being more aggressive.
“I thought she attacked more off the bounce more,” Fernandez said. “I thought she was really assertive. She did a good job.”
Vivians said she felt comfortable attacking off the bounce from either wing. She said she hopes she can use her effort Wednesday to be more consistent as an attacking threat on the wing.
Williams didn’t play in the fourth quarter. Still, USF cut the deficit to 66-56 on a layup by Laura Ferreira (team-high 19 points) with 58 seconds to play. Up until that point, MSU had scored only four points in the quarter.
MSU used a 16-3 run in the first quarter to take a 19-10 lead. The cushion grew to as many as 16 points twice in the second quarter. A jump shot by Ketara Chapel with 1:02 left in the second quarter gave MSU a 41-25 lead.
MSU shot 50 percent (17 of 34) from the field in the first half. It made only nine field goals in the second quarter and shot 43.3 percent (26 of 60) from the field for the game. The Bulldogs also forced 13 turnovers in the first half. The Bulls committed at least five of the turnovers trying to push tempo or to make things happen.
Williams had eight points (2 of 11 from the field) in the first half. She didn’t hit her first field goal until there was 2:10 left in the first half. Dillingham picked up two fouls in the first half. William and Vivians also shared responsibility for guarding Williams.
“She didn’t get off to a good start,” Fernandez said. “I think, too, she needed to get to the free-throw line and finish around the rim.
“She struggled when the ball didn’t go through the hole, so we have to find other ways to get to the basket or the free-throw line.”
The Bulldogs played a large role in affecting Williams’ performance, which should please Schaefer with the Southeastern Conference opener against Florida up at noon Sunday. He also was pleased with the intensity and hustle he saw from the Bulldogs. The effort included freshman center Teaira McCowan diving on the floor for a loose ball with 6:59 to play. Those are the kind of plays Schaefer wants the Bulldogs to deliver every night.
“I loved our inside game in the first half,” Schaefer said when asked if the team he watched Wednesday was the team he wanted to coach. “We had a little trouble in the second half with some things, but I thought in the first half we really established an inside game. We struggled down there in the second half with positioning and posting and had some offensive fouls, but I really loved how we went inside and establishing a presence down there.”
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.