SEC title defense begins for MSU women

Mississippi State's Teaira McCowan (15) works against Arkansas last season.

Staff Writer

One part of the schedule is down for No. 7 Mississippi State and the Bulldogs are off to a successful 12-1 start as Southeastern Conference games begin Thursday night.

MSU is set for the beginning of SEC play and the defense of its first ever conference title from last season. The Bulldogs start things off with a road trip to Arkansas Thursday night at 6 p.m. for a game that is set to be broadcasted by SEC Network.

It’s a game against a team, and coach, that Vic Schaefer is as familiar with as any nationally. The seventh-year Bulldog head man was an assistant at Arkansas over 20 years ago and sat on the same bench as the Razorbacks head coach Mike Neighbors.

Neighbors is an Arkansas alum, who led Washington to a Final Four and two years ago lost to the Bulldogs in the Sweet 16 in Oklahoma City. After taking over a struggling Razorback team last season and winning just 13 games, he’s already off to an 11-3 record this year.

“He went out and did what you do when you take over a program that’s where it was – you go recruiting,” Schaefer said of the Arkansas head man. “They’ve got some really good players. They can spread you out. (Malika) Monk can take you off the bounce and is as good as anybody in the league. We’re going to have to be really good going over there playing on the road.”

One of the reasons for a quick turnaround for Arkansas is the addition of transfers. Sophomore guard Chelsea Dungee has been the most impactful with her team-leading 17 points a game. They also have Jones College guard and former MSU target Alexis Tolefree, who averages 12.4 points a game with 27 steals for the year. Neighbors won a recruiting battle against Schaefer with Tolefree, who was an Arkansas native who became an All-American at Jones last year after transferring from Central Arkansas.

There’s still Monk, as well, who averages 12.9 points a game.

The Bulldogs have had some help from transfers and veterans alike to reset their success this season. Preseason SEC Player of the Year Teaira McCowan notched her 10th double-double of the year on Sunday against Louisiana and is averaging a team-high 16.7 points and 12.5 rebounds a game.

After struggling mightily in MSU’s only loss on the road at Oregon two weeks ago, Schaefer believes she learned some things in defeat. Most importantly, he hopes that she learned to stay poised in the midst of frustrating moments.

“I thought she bounced back well against Washington," Schaefer said of his star center. "People are going to try to defend her and do things that they can get away with. We’ve got to do our job to teach her how to do things correctly with great technique.”

MSU as a whole bounced back well after that 82-74 loss to the Ducks on the road. The Bulldogs followed up their least productive game with a 103-56 blowout on the road at Washington and a 104-36 hammering of Louisiana. It got MSU to a school-record six 100-point performances this year and they’re averaging 92.6 points a game which is good for second nationally.

“I was pretty excited to see us come back and play the way we did,” Schaefer said. “We didn’t play our best against Oregon and Oregon had a lot to do with that. I thought we made some really poor decisions in that game and that’s part of playing on the road. It helps build your team and teaches them what it’s like. I didn’t like losing, but hopefully we’ll learn from it.”

The nucleus of MSU’s success is starting to come together as conference play is here. Right there with McCowan in offensive and defensive production is Anriel Howard, who has 16.1 points and 8.1 rebounds a game.

Senior Jordan Danberry heads back to her former school at Arkansas this week with a career-best 12.1 points a game. Chloe Bibby averages 11.6 points and has a team-high 27 3-pointers.

Schaefer believes that the best basketball is ahead of the Bulldogs as SEC play picks up. For the first time ever, they are defending champions and they’re doing it with many new faces. After finishing better than they were picked in the preseason almost every year that he’s been on campus, that can’t happen this year, but the Bulldogs can reach expectations.

“This year we’re picked number one," Schaefer said. "You can finish any higher than that. For this team, it’s a big challenge. You’ve got four new starters and they’re having to wear that responsibility that have never had it before. It’s a challenge for me as a coach and a challenge for the players to wear it and own it. It’s their time to step up and be an impact player. Whatever that role is that you have on the team, it’s your turn to step up.”