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No. 7 MSU uses defensive switch down stretch to beat Georgia

 

Adam Minichino

 

 

STARKVILLE -- "It wasn't our best night" usually is a good indication bad news is coming. 

 

Even though the Mississippi State women's basketball team only had one loss entering its game against Georgia, MSU coach Vic Schaefer has used that phrase several times this season to describe the myriad issues that plague his team. 

 

On Thursday night, Schaefer uttered those words again before praising his team for its work in the final five-plus minutes that ultimately turned the tide and pushed No. 7 MSU to an 80-71 victory against Georgia in a Southeastern Conference matchup before a crowd of 6,493 at Humphrey Coliseum. 

 

"When it got down to crunch time we didn't blink, either. We didn't flinch," Schaefer said. "I thought our veterans answered the bell." 

 

Que Morrison's drive with 6 minutes, 12 seconds remaining gave Georgia (11-4, 2-1 SEC) a 68-65 lead. From there, MSU raised its intensity and effort on the defensive end. Jordan Danberry had a steal after Teaira McCowan applied tight ball pressure on Jenna Staiti to force the turnover. Jazzmun Holmes also hustled after a loose ball following a missed jumper by Taja Cole. Danberry also applied pressure on the ball to force a turnover in a half-court set, and MSU was able to close out and give Gabby Connally a smaller shooting window on a 3-pointer that she missed. 

 

Each sequence came after Schaefer made the decision to get out of the full-court pressure defense that Georgia broke with little opposition. Cole pushed the tempo and had six assists to help Georgia's strong and quick group of guards get to the basket in transition or in its half-court sets. 

 

"This one hurts," said Georgia coach Joni Taylor, whose team committed 22 turnovers. "Our kids played extremely hard. We were locked in against a very good Mississippi State team. My hope is that our team realizes that if you can come on the road and play like this, you can play with anybody. We have to bounce back and get ready for the next one." 

 

Schaefer said he was proud of his team's toughness and ability to fight back after not being able to stop Georgia for most of the evening. Georgia went 0-for-10 from the field after it took the 68-65 lead. It went 5-for-17 in the fourth quarter (29.4 percent), but it still shot 53.6 percent (30-for-56) from the field, which was the second-highest mark against MSU (15-1, 3-0) this season. Marquette shot 54.1 percent from the field in an 87-82 loss on Dec. 6 in Starkville. Oregon, which shot 50 percent from the field in an 82-74 victory on Dec. 18 in Eugene, Oregon, is the only other opponent to shoot 50 percent or better this season against MSU. 

 

Schaefer acknowledged after the game MSU probably stayed in the full-court press too long. He cited the third quarter in which Georgia was 11-for-15 from the field (73.3 percent) and used a 24-17 10-minute spurt to turn the momentum. 

 

"They just had more juice than we did tonight," Schaefer said. "For whatever reason, we couldn't keep up with them." 

 

Schaefer said he made the decision with about five or six minutes left to get out of the press to try to defend Georgia player to player. He said he was proud his players "hunkered" down and showed some resolve on defense, but he reiterated MSU is "so bad defensively," which is something he said he hates to say that and he has to "wear it." 

 

Despite Schaefer scolding himself, MSU showed more fire down the stretch. 

 

"We started to get beat on the press a little bit, so coach made the decision to get us back in our half-court defense," MSU graduate student Anriel Howard said. "That definitely helped and put an emphasis on guarding the ball and ball pressure and passing lanes." 

 

Schaefer said MSU wasn't aggressive enough in denying Georgia's high-low attack with 6-foot-3 Caliya Robinson on the back end. Robinson used her height advantage on Howard (5-11) to go 11-for-20 from the field and score a game-high 26 points. 

 

"I fought it all night trying to get somebody to deny that high pass," Schaefer said. "We have worked on it and talked about. Tonight was a struggle. We struggled in a lot of defensive areas." 

 

Still, MSU was able to overcome Georgia shooting better than 60 percent from the field for most of the game. MSU converted Georgia's 22 turnovers into 30 points and had a 22-4 edge in second-chance points. 

 

"The last five minutes having a senior team, we got up and we knew we had to win this game," said sophomore Chloe Bibby, who led MSU with a career-high 24 points. "We're going to have a lot of these tough, close games. I think it was good for us to be able to see they were close. Even thought we had to get out of the press we were able to adjust and get the win." 

 

Said Schaefer, "We had some big stops late. I think Jazz had a steal and Jordan had a steal, and we were able to get some stops when we needed them." 

 

NOTES: The game was MSU's second this season in which a bench player failed to log double-digit minutes. Andra Espinoza-Hunter scored MSU's only point off the bench in seven minutes, which was the most of the four reserves who saw action. ... Howard logged 40 minutes for the first time this season. Bibby played 40 minutes for the third time, while McCowan played her second-most minutes (36). ... MSU will take on Auburn at 6 p.m. Monday (SEC Network) in Auburn, Alabama. 

 

Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor

 

Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.

 

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