This was Vic Schaefer, coach of the Mississippi State women’s basketball team, talking late Sunday afternoon:
“We set offensive basketball back at least 20 years today.”
“We’re just not very good on the offensive end of the floor. We are not executing. We keep turning the ball over. Offensively, we are awful.”
“It’s my job to fix it and I’m not doing a very good job right now.”
Enough. Now then, you should know Schaefer’s Lady Bulldogs, ranked No. 17 at the time, had just defeated Missouri 53-47, on the road, erasing a nine-point second half deficit, to go to 17-0 on the season. That’s the best start in school history, the longest win streak in school history.
Schaefer must be doing something right. Same goes for his players.
That’s especially true when you consider Schaefer started three sophomores and a freshman. And, consider also: Of the10 players who played 10 minutes or more, two were freshmen, five were sophomores. Seven of the 10 leading scorers on the team are freshmen and sophomores.
This is a young team, that is not shooting well, that is trying to find its identity, that is learning how to play with one another, that has players adjusting to the SEC, a team with its best basketball is well ahead of it. Yes, and it is also a team that has played 17 games and won 17 games by an average score of precisely 29 points per game. Whew!
State is also 2-0 in the SEC, having won its league opener over perennial powerhouse Georgia two days prior to the victory over Missouri. Beating No. 19 Georgia, coached by remarkably successful Andy Landers, was nice and all. But perhaps the most significant statistic of that victory was this one: More than 4,000 folks paid to watch it at 3 p.m. on a workday afternoon when school was not in session. If you win, as State is winning, people will come and they are starting to do just that at The Hump.
Hard to say what the ceiling is for this team. It is high, for sure. Schaefer will tell you as much.
“I think we can be really, really good (as if 17-0 is not),” Schaefer said. “We play hard, we play good defense and we have the weapons to be a good offensive team. There’s no reason we can’t be.”
Schaefer made huge news last year when he signed Scott Central’s Victoria Vivians, the leading high school scorer in U.S. history, to a scholarship. Vivians leads these Bulldogs with a 15-point per game average while adjusting to the move from Class 2A high school basketball to the SEC.
As Schaefer puts it, “It’s a huge adjustment. Being open in the SEC and being open in high school or AAU ball are two different things. In the SEC, you are never as open as you would like to be. It’s not just that way for Victoria; it’s that way for everybody.”
Vivians plays on the wing in State’s offense. Whichever side she is on, the opponents’ defense leans that way. She has a hand in her face at all times. She is learning to play against bigger, quicker, stronger opponents. There are growing pains. Despite leading a 17-0 team in scoring, she is dealing with frustation as she never has before.
“But the deal is, she cares so much,” Schaefer said. “She wants to get better. She didn’t have a great offensive game today (nine points against Missouri), but she was so much better defensively. You can’t get her off the floor in practice.”
Keep in mind, State is 17-0 despite returning All-SEC center Martha Alwal, coming off an injury, having played in only 12 games and averaging just seven points and six rebounds per game in those. You can expect Alwal’s numbers to rise dramatically.
And you can expect this State team to rise in the national rankings — this season and in coming seasons. No matter how effective you are offensively, when you play defense as State does, success is almost a given. Opponents are shooting 33 percent from the field, 20 percent from beyond the arc. They are scoring just 52 points per game. State plays defense as if lives depend on it.
It’s defense first at State. And if, the offense catches up, watch out.
Rick Cleveland is the executive director of the Mississippi Sport Hall ofFame and Museum.