STARKVILLE — Thirty-point wins don’t happen very often in the Southeastern Conference.
Vic Schaefer is more accustomed to playing the knock-down, drag-out affairs that test teams’ hearts and their willingness to dig deep.
The No. 5 Mississippi State women’s basketball team faced one of those situations Thursday night against Auburn. After leading 39-24 at halftime, MSU saw its lead cut to 48-42 with 3 minutes, 24 seconds left in the third quarter. But instead of allowing the Tigers’ pressing defense to continue to wreak havoc, the Bulldogs settled down and used a 17-0 run that stretched into the fourth quarter to pull away for a 77-47 victory at Auburn Arena.
Following the game and again Friday in a media availability, Schaefer said the final score wasn’t indicative of the closeness of the game. Still, it is easy to look past how MSU started and finished the game. The Bulldogs used a 26-9 first quarter and a 21-5 final frame to improve to 22-1 and 8-1 in the SEC.
Schaefer didn’t want the way his team responded to a challenge on the road to go unnoticed.
“It’s hard to do,” Schaefer said when asked if the size of the Bulldogs’ victory on the road gets lost in the shuffle. “It’s hard to win by 30 at home. I think that is how well our kids played. I think when they ran out of gas we kind of got our third wind.”
No. 5 MSU will try to keep up that pace at 1:30 p.m. today (ESPNU) when it plays host to Missouri (16-7, 6-3) at Humphrey Coliseum. Schaefer said the first and fourth quarters were “really special.” The result was a school-record 10th road victory that has MSU one-half game behind No. 4 South Carolina for the top spot in the league. Missouri, which has won five games in a row, is tied with Texas A&M and Tennessee for third. The top four teams get a double bye for the SEC tournament, which will be March 1-5 at Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, South Carolina.
Schaefer credited his team’s depth for its ability to weather the Tigers’ pressure and to have the legs to make a final push. While Victoria Vivians (16.9 points per game) and Morgan William (10.4 ppg) are the only Bulldogs scoring in double figures, the team has 10 players averaging double-digit minutes. Two of those players — Roshunda Johnson (20 games) and Dominique Dillingham (17) — haven’t played in all 23 games, so the Bulldogs should be positioned well for the stretch run to the regular season.
Dillingham feels the Bulldogs have handled the 17,000-plus miles of travel and the assorted bumps in the road with focus. She said the team has responded and bounced back when it has been hit with adversity, much like it did Thursday night. She said the Bulldogs know they’re not perfect and realize they have to continue to polish their skills to realize their goals.
“We need to get better in practice and to have better practices,” said Dillingham, who added that good habits start in practice. “We came out really well. They came back in the second quarter and they came back at us in the third quarter. I think the game was full of runs. The other team makes a run, (and) we make a run. It is all about responding to the runs. I think we have been doing that really well. I think we go back and look at all of the mistakes we make and we work on those things. I think we just need to work on having stronger third quarters because we have come out of the locker room slow.”
MSU’s focus has narrowed to aspects like faster starts to quarters because it is doing so many things well.
n The Bulldogs are second in the SEC and 20th in the nation in scoring (77.6 pg.).
n They also are second in the SEC and 19th in the nation in field goal percentage (46 percent).
n MSU is averaging 15.5 assists and 13.3 turnovers per game.
n It also is first in the SEC and is 28th in the nation in offensive rebounds per game (15.6).
n MSU also leads the SEC and is 10th in the nation in scoring defense (54 ppg. overall, 55.6 ppg. in the SEC).
The last statistic might be so telling only because Schaefer has been critical of his team’s defense. In fact, he reiterated that point Friday in recapping the victory against Auburn. Stats aside, though, Schaefer has turned his focus to helping the Bulldogs get one play better and one minute better each day. He feels MSU will need to have that kind of concentration if it is going to continue to overcome challenges and take the next step.
Like Dillingham, Schaefer believes the Bulldogs have answered the call in tough venues, like they did rallying to beat Iowa State in Ames, Iowa, or winning three games in three days in Hawaii.
“They have been really good. You can’t ask for anymore, really,” Schaefer said. “They have answered the bell in every situation, even in the loss at South Carolina. They competed their tails off to the very end. They executed to the very end. It just came down to one play. … I have got to continue to monitor my team. I have to make sure I put them in the best position to be successful. I have to monitor their health. I have to adjust with minutes sometimes.”
“I think we have done a real good job not getting caught up in who’s next, where it is, how far do we have to go, when are we leaving. … When it all shakes out and it is all said and done, one month or two month from now, we ought to be pretty good.”
NOTES: Sophomore guard Sophie Cunningham leads Missouri, which has won five games in a row, in scoring (16.1 points per game). Sophomore forward Cierra Porter averages 14.7 points and 8.7 rebounds a game. … MSU encourages fans to wear white for the game, which also will be broadcast on WKBB-FM 100.9. A live audio stream will be available at hailstate.com/plus and the TuneIn app. … The first 500 fans receive a free T-shirt to celebrate National Girls & Women In Sports Day. Tickets cost $5 for adults, while admission is free for youth age 18 and under. MSU students also get in free with a valid MSU ID. Free youth tickets can be picked up at the ticket off or inside Bully’s Kidz Kourt, which opens at noon. MSU students can enjoy free games, food and more starting at noon in the student lounge. Fans can enjoy a special performance at halftime by the nationally renowned XPOGO…. Dillingham and classmates Ketara Chapel, Chinwe Okorie, and Breanna Richardson are one win from reaching 100 in their careers. The seniors are the winningest class in program history with a record of 99-30 (.767 winning percentage). … Richardson needs 10 points to reach 1,000 for her career. … On Thursday, MSU received the Crystal Pineapple Tourism Award at the Greater Starkville Development Partnership’s annual banquet. The team was unable to accept the award in person as it was clinching its 10th road win of the season with a 77-47 victory against Auburn. MSU received the Crystal Pineapple Tourism Award for its impact in helping drive tourism in Starkville during the 2015-16 season. That campaign, which resulted in a school-record 28 wins and a trip to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, saw the Bulldogs set a program attendance record for the third-straight year (92,914). … At 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, MSU will hold its first of two luncheons this month at Mize Pavilion. Doors will open at 11:15. The cost is $12. It includes a meal and hoops talk with Schaefer and members of his coaching staff and team. Fans who RSVP for the luncheon by calling 662-325-0198 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org will be entered for the opportunity to win a door prize.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.