A dwindling roster hasn’t led to diminishing returns for the Mississippi State women’s basketball team.
With only nine players available Sunday, No. 6 MSU defeated Alabama 65-49 at Coleman Coliseum in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to extend its Southeastern Conference regular-season winning streak to 25 games. The Bulldogs played without Bre’Amber Scott (concussion symptoms) and Nyah Tate (foot), who didn’t travel with the team. MSU won despite playing only seven players for large stretches of the game because coach Vic Schaefer wasn’t pleased with the performance of several players.
Through all of the ups and downs, MSU (21-1, 9-0 SEC) remains atop the league with a one-game lead against South Carolina as it continues preparations for its game against Tennessee at 1 p.m. Sunday (ESPN) at Humphrey Coliseum. That game is sold out.
MSU, South Carolina, and Texas A&M appear to have separated themselves at the top of the league, while the middle of the pack fights to see if the SEC will get six, seven, or eight teams into the NCAA tournament. For MSU, the questions remains when will it come together. Schaefer has said multiple times that a lack of talent won’t be an issue for the 2018-19 squad. With seniors Teaira McCowan, Jazzmun Holmes, and Anriel Howard and graduate student Anriel Howard, the Bulldogs have the most experienced and talented foursome in the league. While the injury to sophomore Chloe Bibby was a big blow, the Bulldogs figure to have enough depth and versatility to find ways to win without her. The key is staying healthy. MSU isn’t quite to the level of the 2002-03 Georgia team that coach Andy Landers dubbed “the Miracle Workers” due to the fact he had eight healthy players, but that team pushed on to the Sweet 16 and nearly upended a Duke team led by Alana Beard because it played together and made the most of its talents.
MSU needs Danberry, who twisted an ankle late in the second quarter against Alabama, to continue to be its most explosive player. Danberry, Holmes, and Myah Taylor also have to continue to set the tone with their defense and take care of the basketball. There is no way the Bulldogs will get back to the Final Four if they commit 17 turnovers like they did against Alabama.
MSU has a great chance to return to the Final Four, which will be in Tampa, Florida, if it finds the chemistry that made the 2017-18 squad so deadly. The Bulldogs made teams pay last season because they were willing to make the extra pass. It also helped that they had multiple players on the perimeter who could knock down 3-pointers if you left them open. Roshunda Johnson mixed things up with an ability to create off the dribble, as did Victoria Vivians, who capitalized on matchups against bigger players.
This season, MSU has displayed flashes of that kind of play. There’s no denying the Bulldogs are unselfish. They lead the SEC with 382 assists, an average of 17.4 per game, and are shooting a league-best 49.8 percent from the field. That number is below 50 percent for the first time in a long time in part because more teams are trying to stop MSU’s high-scoring ways by playing zone defense. The willingness to make an extra pass, or to flip the floor, as Schaefer calls it, becomes even more critical against opponents that want to pack it in. Those defenses might make it harder for the Bulldogs to get McCowan involved, but ball and player movement that make defenses switch and shift can negate that strategy.
With seven games remaining in the league schedule, now is the time to develop those habits. The Bulldogs have shown they understand the difference between a “good” shot and a “great” shot. Still, there are too many times when MSU settles for quick shots when it would be better served to run its offense or to attack the rim under control. MSU is second in the SEC in free throws attempted (491) and is second to Kentucky (73.1 percent) in free throw shooting percentage. Without Bibby, the Bulldogs have one less 3-point shooter, so their best recipe is to work the ball inside-out or vice versa to get mismatches or to forces defenses out of position. McCowan showed against Alabama she can be an effective outlet if the Bulldogs are willing to reverse the basketball. She also is savvy and quick enough to recognize when and where double teams will come from and to move against them.
MSU has time to work on those things. Schaefer vowed Sunday that MSU would take advantage of an open date Thursday to work more on offense prior to its game against Tennessee. While known as the “Secretary of Defense,” Schaefer and his staff have displayed an ability to tweak MSU’s offense and to put players in the best possible situations. The work that remains doesn’t involve overhauling everything that has been done since the start of the season. Instead, the Bulldogs to be more patient and to be willing to probe and to attack defenses for longer stretches. The ability to do that will pay off in late March and in early April when MSU tries to be one possession better and to capture the ultimate prize that has eluded it the last two seasons.
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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