March 10, 2019 12:36:42 PM
GREENVILLE, S.C. -- There are signs the Mississippi women's basketball team's defense is improving, even by coach Vic Schaefer's standards.
Even though No. 5 seed Missouri shot better than 50 percent from the field for most of the game, top-seeded MSU continued to show improvement on Schaefer's favorite end of the court in a 71-56 victory in the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference tournament at Bon Secours Wellness Arena.
"I think we're finally learning. We're gaining chemistry on defense," MSU graduate student Anriel Howard said. "I think our biggest issue from what I've noticed is helping the helper. Now we're finally doing that. We're scrambling, going to find the open man. I think we've been progressing individually as well. Well, I hope so. I think I've been doing a little better defensively."
MSU (29-2) hopes to deliver a similar kind of defensive effort at 1 p.m. Sunday when it takes on No. 10 seed Arkansas, which upset No. 3 seed Texas A&M 58-51, in the SEC tournament title game.
MSU advanced to its fourth-straight title game by holding Missouri (23-10) to 60 or fewer points for the eighth time this season. The Bulldogs allowed two fewer 3-pointers (nine) than they did to the Tigers in Missouri's 75-67 victory on Feb. 14 in Starkville. That game was the only blemish on MSU's SEC regular-season mark.
"I think there's stretches," Schaefer said when asked about his team's improved play on defense. "We have glimpses of hope. I think you have those opportunities. You see those things. I'm looking for consistency. I'd like to string together four, five games now doing it in the 50s. We did that in the middle of conference, then it got away from us. We were back giving up 60-something. I know we're scoring a lot.
Still, you know me, I'd like to see us engaged defensively because we're really good in the open floor in transition. We get some steals, get out on the break, Jo is running, Jazz is pushing. We're pretty good."
Cunningham lights it up
Sophie Cunningham, a first-team All-SEC performer, did all she could to power Missouri to the SEC tournament title game.
In the first meeting against MSU, a 75-67 victory by Missouri, Cunningham had 24 points to power a 55.1-percent shooting effort for the Tigers. In the rematch, the 6-foot-1 senior from Columbia, Missouri, scored a game-high 33 points before fouling out late in the fourth quarter. She was 11-for-16 from the field, including 5-for-9 from 3-point range. In the process, she became Missouri's all-time leading scorer, passing Joni Davis. Cunningham will enter the NCAA tournament with 2,157 points.
"She has worked her tail off for every single point she has ever scored, and it has been an honor and a privilege to coach her," Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said.
Said MSU coach Vic Schaefer, "I'm not going to miss her. ... She's a vicious, ferocious competitor."
Lost in all of the numbers of MSU's victory and Missouri's Cunningham becoming the school's all-time leading scorer, was the absence of freshman point guard Akira Levy.
Levy played 22 minutes and had 10 points, five assists, and three steals in the Tigers' win in Starkville. Levy last played Feb. 24 in a loss to Auburn. She has missed the last five games after tearing an anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in her knee.
"We just had a hard time getting around people," said Pingeton, who shot 47.5 percent (19-for-40) from the field. "They were switching screens, getting through screens. It was just a tremendous defensive effort from Mississippi State. I think you have to give them a lot of credit. They guard the ball hard and don't give you a lot of opportunities to create off the bounce.
"I think that is where Akira Levy probably makes a big difference for us. She has the ability to maybe create a little bit more off the bounce and get to that paint where it might open something for someone else, and she is an awfully good passer. I thought that was really apparent tonight how much we had missed her against teams that pressure as well as Mississippi State does."
Schaefer agreed Levy's absence played a role in his team forcing 17 turnovers, even though it only turned those mistakes into 14 points.
"She was really good at our place," Schaefer said. "At our place she was the best player on the floor. She really played well for them, was a different kind of point guard for them. That kid is going to have a great career. I hate what happened to her. She'll be back. She'll be faster and stronger than ever. In today's medical world. ... She's a heck of a player."
Praise for Holmes
MSU senior point guard Jazzmun Holmes didn't hit double figures. She didn't need to.
With Teaira McCowan and Howard scoring 46 points and grabbing 26 rebounds, and handing out six assists (four by Howard), Holmes was her usual steady self leading the Bulldogs. Holmes had eight points, four assists (one turnover), and two steals in 39 minutes. She was 4-for-9 from the field and found success when she dribbled into shots that the Tigers appeared to be giving her.
"Things like that don't necessarily show up in a box score," Pingeton said of Holmes' ability to run a team, "but she is such a great athlete, and she plays with great pace. She has a great demeanor. Things like that you don't get credit for, but I think she has an outstanding season for them. She knows her role, and she is very good at it.
"She could be a lot more aggressive offensively if she wanted to be, but I think she is just such an unselfish kid and she knows what coach Schaefer wants and does a tremendous job for that program."
McCowan's 16 rebounds were the most by a MSU player in a SEC tournament game. That total eclipsed the previous mark of 15 set by Tan White in 2003.
Follow Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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