March 11, 2019 11:46:12 AM
By Adam Minichino
GREENVILLE, S.C. -- Andra Espinoza-Hunter credits her mother, Patty, for teaching how to put things past her quickly.
Espinoza-Hunter had to rely on her mother's lessons Sunday afternoon after Mississippi State women's basketball coach Vic Schaefer lifted her from the game only 1 minute, 54 seconds into the Southeastern Conference tournament championship game against Arkansas.
Schaefer motioned to the left end of the court, where MSU had been playing defense as if to offer a reason for why he was taking Espinoza-Hunter out of the game. Instead of allowing the short stint to start the game get her down, Espinoza-Hunter rallied from the episode and matched Teaira McCowan with a team-high 24 points to power No. 1 seed MSU to a 101-70 victory against No. 10 seed Arkansas at Bon Secours Wellness Arena.
"Just feeling the ball coming off my hands, I felt good," Espinoza-Hunter said. "The passes I was getting from my teammates were right in my pocket, so I knew as soon as it was going up it was going in."
Espinoza-Hunter said she didn't make a hustle play correctly, which hastened her departure from the game. She returned at the 6:56 mark of the second quarter and hit her first 3-pointer with 2:12 to go before halftime. She ended the half in style, as she passed to Bre'Amber Scott, who replaced her in the game in the first quarter, for a 3-pointer with 3.9 seconds remaining that gave MSU (30-2) a 54-34 halftime lead.
Espinoza-Hunter came alive in the second half, going 7-for-9 from 3-point range, including three in the final two minute to help push MSU score the most points in a SEC Championship game.
The Bulldogs also surpassed their program record for most points and field goals (40-for-64) in a SEC tournament game.
The eight 3-pointers are the most treys in a SEC tournament game, eclipsing the previous record of seven.
Espinoza-Hunter said it would have been selfish for her to allow the substitution affect her play. She said she wanted to do whatever she could to help the Bulldogs win the program's first SEC tournament title.
"It was nothing," Espinoza-Hunter said. "The way my mom raised me, it is really in one ear, out the other. Listen to what he has to say and just take that and use that as fuel to burn the fire inside of you to go play hard."
Busy weekend for Bulldogs
McCowan, Howard, and Jazzmun Holmes wrapped up their busiest weekend of the season.
In their previous three games, McCowan, Howard, and Holmes played 30 or more minutes. Entering the title game, McCowan had played all but seven minutes, while Howard had played all but three and Holmes had played all but two.
Foul trouble limited Howard to 18 minutes Sunday, while McCowan led the Bulldogs with 35 minutes and Holmes logged "only" 34.
Prior to the SEC tournament, all three players had played 30 or more minutes in the same game six times. The total minutes for the three players in each of those six games (Oregon, Georgia, first South Carolina game, Alabama, Tennessee, and Ole Miss) were less than the last four games.
Holmes didn't show any effects from playing so many minutes. Entering the game against Arkansas, she had 11 assists, two turnovers, and seven steals. She capped an all-tournament team weekend with four points, 12 assists (one shy of her career high), five rebounds, and only one turnover. It was Holmes' fifth-straight game with more than 30, which tied her longest streak of the season. She logged 30 or more minutes in consecutive games against Arkansas, Kentucky, Georgia, Auburn, and South Carolina. She also had a run of three-straight games (Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri) with 30 or more minutes.
Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors gave Holmes the ultimate compliment when he said, "when she gets the stats sheet she is looking for the 'A' and the 'TO' not the points and rebounds."
Schaefer echoed that sentiment when he again asked someone to find him a better point guard in the country given that Holmes leads the SEC in assist-to-turnover ratio and has led the Bulldogs to 30 wins.
"I had to get on Jazz tonight, she wouldn't take a shot," Schaefer said. "She's more worried about the assists. Jazz is such a good offensive player. She was really locked in, 12 assists, one turnover. Just a phenomenal game. Again, I'm so proud and happy for her. She deserves to be all tournament, to run our team the way she's run it, not just in this tournament but all year. Very appropriate she was rewarded for that.
A crowd of 5,771 -- with a decidedly MSU lean -- was on hand to see the title game. It was the second-largest crowd of the weekend, second only to the 5,817 on hand Saturday.
The total attendance for the five-day event was 32,180, which was a significant drop from last year, when the tournament had a total attendance of 45,174 in Nashville, Tennessee.
The 32,180 also was less than the total of 34,322 in 2017, when the tournament also was held in Greenville, South Carolina. That tournament featured South Carolina in the title game.
The SEC women's basketball tournament will return to Greenville, South Carolina, next season.
MSU's appearance in the SEC tournament title game marked the fourth-straight year it accomplished that feat.
In doing so, MSU became the fifth program in SEC history to advance to the league's tournament title game for four consecutive seasons. MSU joins Tennessee (1988-92), LSU (2005-08), Auburn (1987-90), and South Carolina (2015-18).
This and that
MSU's 54-point first half marked the eighth time this season it has eclipsed the 50-point mark in the first 20 minutes. It had 50 points in the first half of its 93-69 victory against Arkansas on Jan. 3 in Fayetteville, Arkansas. ... Arkansas was 3-for-17 from 3-point range in the first meeting. The Razorbacks nearly matched those totals Sunday in the first 20 minutes, going 4-for-16. They were 12-for-34 from the field (35.3 percent) overall. MSU was 23-for-32 (71.9 percent) in the first half. Arkansas finished 9-for-28 from 3-point range (32.1 percent).
Follow Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
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