STARKVILLE — Nikki McCray-Penson exited the northeast tunnel at Humphrey Coliseum and waved to the Mississippi State student section.
But rather than a raucous applause or the screams of an adoring fan base that averaged over 7,600 attendees per game a season ago, McCray-Penson’s tenure in Starkville began with thousands of empty seats, the squeaking of shoes across the floor and a 88-58 win over Jackson State.
“I think sitting here throughout the day — I’m not going to sit here and lie — I’m sitting here like,’Ugh, I’m ready for the ball to jump up,'” McCray-Penson said through a postgame smile as a celebratory cowbell marking her first win at MSU sat on the table to her right. “I was ready just to get it over with because it was just building up.”
While Sunday’s win was decisive and, in itself, indicative of a team that’s talented but youthful, the optics of the Bulldogs’ last-minute season opener and the logistics of the preceding days proved as intriguing as any actual on-court display.
Initially scheduled to play in the Women’s Hall of Fame Classic with Quinnipiac, Maine and No. 3 UConn, COVID-19 related issues forced the Huskies to pull out. The event was eventually canceled in its entirety Tuesday.
With the long-anticipated preseason tournament off and a hypothetical rematch of the 2017 Final Four upset of UConn put on hold for at least a few more months, organizers from MSU and Jackson State initially began discussions that day. Staffers in Starkville were alerted by lunchtime Tuesday the game was on and assistant coach Brittany Young set to work on flipping a game plan in less than 48 hours.
“You’ve just got to be able to adjust,” McCray-Penson said. “I mean, that’s part of it. Games are getting canceled left and right. We don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring, but we’ve just got to be ready to adjust on the fly.”
Given the last-minute scheduling, fans weren’t allowed to attend Sunday’s contest, though a 25 percent capacity will be allowed for future contests.
MSU players were masked in warmups in accordance with COVID-19-related guidelines. Coaches on both sides donned face coverings for the duration of the contest. So too did the varying staffers scattered throughout a mostly empty Humphrey Coliseum.
On the bench, players and coaches were spaced out in fold-up chairs where high-paying donors and senior athletic department officials normally enjoy contests.
Media members too were relegated to makeshift seating in section 204, a change that felt more representative of watching the game from the International Space Station compared to the usual seating along the south baseline.
Even the national anthem felt off. With the teams in the locker rooms during its pre-recorded rendition, just a smattering of game day officials and reporters looked up at the American flag hanging in the rafters.
There, the banner was also joined by the New Magnolia Flag, which was adopted by Mississippi lawmakers as the official state flag over the summer and designed by Starkville-based artist Rocky Vaughan.
“My teammates made us feel like we had a million fans in there still,” sophomore guard Rickea Jackson, who led all scorers with 19 points, said. “But we always love to have our Hail State fans.”
Running in step with the bizarre visuals of pandemic basketball, the No. 6-ranked Bulldogs were frenetic offensively in Sunday’s season-opening victory. After averaging 79.2 points per game a season ago, McCray-Penson’s bunch scored just 14 first quarter points on 5-of-18 shooting from the floor.
Coaxing on its heavily undersized roster in a fanless gym, the Jackson State sideline employed its own cheering throughout the contest. Shouts of “Defense, ‘clap-clap,’ defense,” roared from the Tiger bench as MSU battled shooting woes for the majority of Sunday’s first half.
MSU eventually shook its frenetic start, shooting 42.9 percent in the second half as the Bulldogs outscored the Tigers 48-39 over the final 30 minutes of action.
Employing a fast-paced, quick-triggered attack, the Bulldogs nearly tripled their average 3-point attempts per game from a season ago, notching 29 shots from distance Sunday.
“Well, I will tell you, when we came in this summer, we shot the ball extremely well,” McCray-Penson said of the uptick. “We did a lot of shooting. And I think they were exhausted in their individual workouts because there was a lot of shots. And that’s what I want.
Watching the MSU lead balloon to as many as 43 points over the final two frames, McCray-Penson walked off the court at Humphrey Coliseum with the first victory of her tenure to little fanfare. Handshakes were replaced with waves from bench to bench. There was no boisterous cheer or standing ovation from the MSU faithful. Instead, players and coaches waved toward the empty seats as the final buzzer sounded in jest of the lacking attendance.
But for McCray-Penson and the Bulldogs, Sunday’s win was a return to normalcy in an offseason marred by uncertainty. Eerie environment or not, women’s basketball has returned to Starkville, and MSU looks the part of a team that can contend for a fourth Elite Eight in five years.
“That was weird,” sophomore guard JaMya Mingo-Young said of playing in an empty stadium. “But it’s COVID times, so it’s something we’re going to have to get prepared for.”
Junior guard Xaria Wiggins is currently unavailable after doctors found a blood clot in her right lung in early October a source close to the team told The Dispatch. Wiggins has been able to go through non-contact drills and conditioning, but won’t be cleared for full-contact until she finishes the medicine she’s on to treat the clot.
A former four-star recruit in the class of 2018, she was on the sidelines for MSU’s win over Jackson State, but did not enter the game.
McCray-Penson wouldn’t delve into the specifics of Wiggins’ availability postgame but said she was being monitored day-to-day.
Ben Portnoy reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @bportnoy15.