STARKVILLE — Anriel Howard feels she has a long way to go.
Players who have an eye on a much bigger prize typically say things like that in an effort to stay humble, focused, and motivated.
Judging from Howard’s performance Sunday, the Mississippi State graduate transfer appears to be hungry to get to where she wants to go in as little time as possible. In the process, the 5-foot-11 forward just might help lead the No. 7 MSU women’s basketball team to the ultimate goal.
Howard posted game highs of 21 points and 12 rebounds to lead No. 7 MSU to an 86-71 victory against No. 16 Kentucky in a Southeastern Conference game before a crowd of 8,830 at Humphrey Coliseum.
Howard scored in double digits — sixth 20-plus point game — for the 11th time this season. It was her second double-double as a Bulldog and 36th of her career.
As much as she led the way offensively, Howard played an integral role defensively on freshman Rhyne Howard and senior Maci Morris, Kentucky’s two leading scorers.
“I think I still have some ways to go. I am not where I want to be,” Howard said. “I am still trying to understand turning and running (which is a tenet of MSU coach Vic Schaefer’s defense), making it consistently, not step-sliding, but once I get it down I think I will be all right.”
Chloe Bibby (18 points), Jordan Danberry (17), and Teaira McCowan (13, 10 rebounds) also scored in double figures as MSU (14-1, 2-0 SEC) sprinted to a 26-11 lead after the first 10 minutes and then held serve the rest of the way.
Howard completed her undergraduate degree at Texas A&M earlier this year and transferred to MSU. In three years at Texas A&M, Howard set a career record with 1,002 rebounds. She was the first Texas A&M player with more than 1,000 career rebounds. Her 9.8 career rebounding average sets the Texas A&M record.
On March 19, 2016, Howard set an NCAA tournament record and Texas A&M single-game record with 27 rebounds against Missouri State. In 2016-17, she became the fourth Aggie and first to average a double-double for a season since 1988-89.
With all of those accomplishments, it’s easy to think of Howard as only a rebounder. But Howard helped Westlake High School (Ga.) to three state titles in track and field and also lettered in volleyball and cross country. She also qualified for the NCAA Regional Championship in track and field in 2016, finishing 38th in the triple jump (39 feet, 10 inches). Howard has used that “Energizer bunny” energy, as Schaefer called it Sunday, to become an integral piece of the Bulldogs’ puzzle.
Still, though, Howard said she has room to grow in Schaefer’s system, which is predicated on player-to-player defense nearly every possession.
“It’s a new program for me and a new defensive scheme,” Howard said. “Ninety-nine percent of the time we play man-to-man. I was used to doing more help defense because we ran a lot of zone at my former school, so I was good at that. But I am trying to improve on my man-to-man coverage. I can do it. I am athletic enough to do it. I have to be fundamental, and that is what I have been struggling with.”
You wouldn’t have known it against Kentucky because Howard came out and helped the Bulldogs throw the first punch. Howard helped the Bulldogs set the tone by executing the game plan and taking Kentucky’s Howard out of her game in the first half. Rhyne Howard, a 6-2 guard, entered the game as the Wildcats’ leading scorer (17.5 points per game), but she was a primary focus of the Bulldogs from the opening tip. With Anriel Howard guarding her, Howard lost the basketball at the 5-minute, 28-second mark, even though the turnover was credited to Amanda Paschal.
Later in the first quarter, with Rhyne Howard back into the game after a break, Anriel Howard absorbed contact from Howard on a drive on the right wing. Anriel Howard didn’t give an inch after Rhyne Howard’s attempt to gain space with her off arm and didn’t give her any room to get a shot off and blocked the shot.
“I thought (MSU’s defense) confused (Rhyne) some, and they switched their on-ball screen and didn’t really trap her,” Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. “She just did not get aggressive enough, and it was a great game for her. This is exactly what she needs. … Mississippi State just kind of walled her up and wouldn’t let her go by.”
Mitchell said he anticipated Anriel Howard guarding Rhyne Howard. He also credited her contributions in 36 minutes for helping MSU have a 48-24 edge in rebounds. The Bulldogs had 25 offensive rebounds and had a 48-22 edge in points in the paint. Anriel Howard did a little bit of everything, going 8-for-14 from the field and hitting her only 3-pointer. She showed her poise by converting two Euro-step layups, when she gathered her steps after an initial move and continued her progress toward the rim the other way.
“In our games, she is exactly what she was (at Texas A&M),” Mitchell said. “She is unbelievable. She is so aggressive, so tough. I am sure they’re very happy she transferred to Mississippi State.”
MSU’s pressure on Howard continued into the second quarter, as the defense converged on her as she drove on the left baseline. Earlier in the game, Howard executed a wrap-around pass with her left hand to set up a teammate for a score. This time, her left-handed pass from the left block intended for the right corner went out of bounds.
If Anriel Howard wasn’t busy enough, she also spent time shadowing Morris. The senior guard did her best to foil Howard’s intentions by going 6-for-8 from the field and scoring 16 of her team-high 20 points in the second half. Not all of the points came when Howard was guarding her.
Howard made it equally difficult on her defenders with her activity around the rim and her quickness off the dribble. She said she is more comfortable with the ball, even though she said she still needs to work on her ballhandling.
On this day, though, Howard looked more like a polished player rather than a work in progress.
“I think my range has extended,” Howard said. “I shoot more threes and I am comfortable shooting them. A good piece is I have guards who have helped me with becoming more comfortable with handling the ball, so I think they have helped me become better offensively.”
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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