STARKVILLE — Round one went to the teacher.
Meeting on opposite sidelines for the first time in their head coaching careers, No. 4 South Carolina (13-1, 8-0 SEC) and Dawn Staley downed No. 21 Mississippi State (8-5, 3-4 SEC) and former Gamecocks assistant Nikki McCray-Penson 75-52 on Thursday night at Humphrey Coliseum.
Now floundering through a three-game losing streak for the first time since 2014, the Bulldogs have dropped back-to-back games by 20-plus points as their Southeastern Conference record fell below .500 for the first time in more than five years.
“Everything that we game planned for, everything we practiced, we didn’t do it,” junior point guard Myah Taylor said postgame in a somber tone.
After a 10-day layoff, the Bulldogs opened the contest with a renewed defensive presence. MSU grinded its way to an 11-10 lead at the end of the first quarter and out-rebounded the towering Gamecocks front line and SEC Player of the Year candidate Aliyah Boston 14-12 in the opening frame.
But all the good the Bulldogs did in limiting the Gamecocks on the defensive end, they wasted offensively. MSU pounded the post, giving junior forward Jessika Carter opportunities to convert deep in the paint. Yet as has been the case all too often against the nation’s elite, Carter and the rest of the Bulldogs frontcourt failed to capitalize, finishing a combined 4 of 11 from the floor in the frame.
For Carter, it marked the latest entry into the ongoing saga of her struggles against Boston. In two games against the Gamecocks last season, the former four-star recruit averaged 3.5 points and 4.5 rebounds. Thursday, she turned in her best performance against a Staley-coached team with a 12-point, 10-rebound night, but miss after miss deep in the post cost MSU dearly.
Sophomore sensation Rickea Jackson, who was removed from the starting lineup for the second time this season, also trudged through a 1-of-7 opening 20 minutes in one of her most dormant first halves of the year, though she did add 13 points on 67 percent shooting in the second half.
With Carter, Jackson and the rest of the Bulldogs lacking any semblance of offensive flow early, Staley’s squad stormed out to a 12-0 run between the waning seconds of the first quarter and opening three-plus minutes of the second quarter. With the length, size and speed that have helped the Gamecocks compete at the highest levels of the sport over the past decade, they flung whatever Bulldogs attacker attempted to reach the hoop to the side.
“I thought we missed a lot of easy shots around the rim,” McCray-Penson said. “And we’ve just got to finish those shots. Good shots, but we’ve got to finish them.”
Entering the 2020-21 season, MSU was again picked toward the top of most every national poll given the plethora of talent returning to Starkville. Now three months into McCray-Penson’s first season, the Bulldogs sit below .500 in SEC play and have lost three straight games for the first time since January 2014.
In South Carolina, Staley’s well-oiled demolition machine continues to roll. The Gamecocks sit undefeated in SEC play and feel destined for another conference title despite a less dominant overall year to date than last season’s squad that concluded the COVID-19-shortened season at No. 1 in the country.
Hired in Columbia in 2008, Staley’s and the Gamecocks’ ascent to the top of the women’s college basketball world coincided, for the most part, with Vic Schaefer’s elevation of the program in Starkville from 2012 on. Battling for conference supremacy year after year during Schaefer’s tenure at MSU, the teams even met in the 2017 national title game.
Throughout MSU’s ebbing and flowing 2020-21 campaign, McCray-Penson has preached patience. The Bulldogs’ best basketball, she’s said in past weeks and reiterated Thursday, is yet to come. Staley even said as much herself.
“They have some great players,” she noted. “They haven’t gotten it all together, but come another month, Nikki will have them going.”
But perhaps there’s a falsity to McCray-Penson and Staley’s confidence in the Bulldogs’ direction. With upcoming games against No. 19 Arkansas — which shocked No. 3 UConn on Thursday night in Fayetteville — and No. 20 Tennessee in the next two weeks, MSU has chances to leap back into the top of the SEC heap. More missteps like Thursday against South Carolina, though, and the Bulldogs may miss the NCAA tournament altogether, never mind having a chance to win it.
“We’re winners,” McCray-Penson assured reporters postgame. “And we have to get back to our winning ways.”
Ben Portnoy reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @bportnoy15.