March 10, 2019 12:34:08 PM
BY ADAM MINICHINO
GREENVILLE, S.C. -- Teaira McCowan showed how deadly she can be Saturday when she has a "feel" for the game.
In the process, the Southeastern Conference Player and Defensive Player of the Year pushed the Mississippi State women's basketball team one step closer to a goal that has eluded it for the last three years.
McCowan had a team-high 27 points and 16 rebounds, while Anriel Howard added 19 points and 10 rebounds to power top-seeded MSU to a 71-56 victory against No. 5 seed Missouri in the semifinals of the SEC tournament at Bon Secours Wellness Arena.
MSU (29-2) will take on No. 10 seed Arkansas, which upset No. 3 seed Texas A&M 58-51 in the other semifinal, at 1 p.m. Sunday (ESPN2). The winner will receive the SEC's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
"I just had to get a feel for the game," said McCowan, the 6-foot-7 senior, who was 11-for-18 from the field and 5-for-5 from the free-throw line. "The first time was turning, turning to them, it was offensive fouls. I was just trying to do my work early, mirror the ball, see where it was coming, then duck in."
McCowan, who was named a finalist for the Wooden Award prior to the game, was referring to her 12-point, 13-rebound effort in MSU's 75-67 loss to Missouri on Feb. 14 in Starkville. McCowan was 4-for-11 from the field and committed three fouls. She rebounded from that effort by carving out space deep in the paint to make it easier for her to score. The Bulldogs also were more patient on offense in looking for McCowan, as they moved the ball from passer to passer to create a better angle to feed McCowan.
"She is a really good player," Missouri redshirt junior center Hannah Schuchts said. "I think she is a tough load to handle for any team. We tried our best, but she is a really good player. I think she is going to go on to do some really big things."
McCowan did her part, too, with two assists. She often was quick to recognize the collapsing defense and pass the ball back out. McCowan's willingness, as MSU coach Vic Schaefer said, to allow the Bulldogs "to play through her" was a primary reason they had 17 assists.
"She is the most unselfish big kid in the country, as well as so many other things as a five player," Schaefer said. "I thought she was really, really special. Anriel is getting more and more comfortable playing with her and finding her, and T finding Anriel. I think this duo is finally getting some chemistry between the two, enjoying the success of one another. I think that is part of the reason why they're playing so well together."
Missouri coach Robin Pingeton admitted her team had its "hands full" against MSU's first-team All-SEC performers. The roles were reversed in he meeting in the regular season, as Missouri outscored MSU 30-24 in the paint. The Tigers also scored 24 points off turnovers. Schaefer referenced both points in his post-game interview, so it wasn't surprising to see the Bulldogs flip those numbers. McCowan and Howard fueled MSU's 40-16 edge in points in the paint. The Bulldogs also committed only eight turnovers and held a 14-4 advantage in points off turnovers.
"I felt like they attempted to do that in our first game, too, and we held our ground a little bit better," Pingeton said. "But we gave up a lot of really deep post catches. When you're 6-7 and you get it right under the rim, that is awfully challenging to stop. I didn't think we did a good enough job holding our ground."
Sophie Cunningham (game-high 33 points) scored all of Missouri's points in an 11-0 run that cut MSU's lead to 43-38 with 2 minutes, 48 seconds to go in the third quarter. Andra Espinoza-Hunter hit a 3-pointer off an assist from McCowan to help trigger an 11-3 run to close the quarter. McCowan scored off a give-and-go from Danberry, hit two free throws, scored off a layup following a turnover, and scored again at the rim off a pass from Jazzmun Holmes. The flurry gave MSU a 54-41 lead entering the fourth quarter. The Bulldogs led by at least nine the rest of the way.
Schaefer praised McCowan for playing "careful" and not being a "bull in a china cabinet" like he felt she was in the first meeting against Missouri. He also likes the growing chemistry between McCowan and Howard and hopes it continues to grow stronger with crack at the program's first SEC tournament title on the line Sunday.
"I just thought tonight she was really special," Schaefer said. "When we went to her, she delivered. At the same time I just think her and Anriel are getting more comfortable with each other every day and enjoying each other's success."
Follow Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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