Nikki McCray-Penson never sent the text.
On Wednesday night, a day prior to the Bulldogs’ Southeastern Conference opener at Georgia, the first-year Mississippi State women’s basketball coach — who texts her players often — planned to send a brief message to freshman Madison Hayes. But McCray-Penson never got around to it.
Instead, when the coach ran into Hayes on Thursday morning, she delivered the message to the five-star guard in person.
“Just have fun today,” the coach reminded Hayes. “Enjoy the moment.”
Hayes did a lot more than that in a 69-62 Mississippi State victory Thursday in Athens, Georgia.
She tied for the team lead with 13 points, including an important five-point stretch in the third quarter, to help the Bulldogs (6-1, 1-0 SEC) earn its first conference win under McCray-Penson and hand Georgia (8-1, 0-1) its first loss.
“I’m really thankful that we were able to finish our year off with a win going into the new season,” McCray-Penson said as 2020’s final hours ticked away.
She pointed to Hayes’ career night — three rebounds, an assist and a season-high 13 points on 4-of-5 shooting, including two 3-pointers and a 3-for-3 performance at the foul line — as a significant reason.
“She’s a player who is very intangible for us, and she’s just really listening and growing as our team is listening and growing,” McCray-Penson said. “It was really good for her to just step into this environment and really be calm and hit some big shots for us and rebound the ball for us.”
But it wasn’t just Hayes’ standout performance that led Mississippi State to a win Thursday. McCray-Penson said the Bulldogs honed their transition defense in order to weather Georgia’s excellent offense in that area. It worked as Mississippi State kept its opponent to just six points in transition, though it came at a cost: MSU committed 23 fouls and allowed 19 points off free throws, and Jessika Carter and Sidney Cooks both fouled out.
“We had to give up some stuff to take away what they really like to do,” McCray-Penson said.
Still, the Bulldogs kept Georgia off the board both in transition and inside. Mississippi State set a goal of scoring more points in the paint than its opponent and managed to do so, beating the Bulldogs 26-22 in that statistic.
MSU took the lead for good on an Aliyah Matharu layup early in the second quarter and slowly began to stretch it out. Carter, who sat most of the first half with two fouls, had eight straight points for the Bulldogs; Hayes hit an and-one layup to cap a streak of five points and punctuated the bucket with a yell of exultation.
McCray-Penson said Mississippi State tried to cut down on turnovers in the third quarter after 10 in the first half and fully deploy a well-rested Carter on Georgia’s frontcourt. Both strategies worked as MSU committed just one turnover in the period and Carter wreaked havoc inside with a pair of free throws and two straight jumpers.
“We knew Jess was going to be fresh, so we wanted to go right to her,” McCray-Penson said. “I thought we had an advantage right there, especially when you’ve got a post player who can knock down shots.”
But despite Mississippi State’s big third quarter, the host Bulldogs hung around. Georgia cut the lead to nine with 6:53 to go in the fourth quarter before four MSU players combined to make five throws, then got as close as six points away with 88 seconds remaining. Coach Joni Taylor’s team took advantage of nine MSU turnovers in the quarter and nearly pulled the comeback.
“Georgia is a team that’s experienced,” McCray-Penson said. “They’re playing well. We were just fortunate to come away with the win.”
Mississippi State will have a tough test in its second conference game, set for noon Sunday at Humphrey Coliseum. The Bulldogs were originally scheduled to play Vanderbilt but will face No. 13 Kentucky instead after the Commodores backed out because of COVID-19 contact tracing guidelines.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.