Call it divine intervention, coincidence or just plain luck, but Mississippi State coaches got exactly what they needed just hours after having their hearts ripped out in a national championship game.
It was a second-straight title game loss for the Bulldogs and the latest version stung infinitely times more than the season before. MSU had a double-digit lead late in the game against Notre Dame before the Fighting Irish fought back and eventually won the game on a buzzer-beating shot.
What the coaches had no idea was happening in the midst of that game was that one of the country’s top free agents was hitting the market. Texas A&M’s all-time leading rebounder Anriel Howard announced her intentions to transfer from College Station just prior to tipoff and one of her family members got in touch with MSU assistant Johnnie Harris moments after the Bulldogs’ loss to let her know.
Harris, head coach Vic Schaefer and the rest of the staff had seen Howard for the last three years with the Aggies and knew what kind of competitor she was. Needless to say, the coach was interested.
“We knew she was a good fit just because of her athleticism, her speed and her quickness,” Harris said. “We felt like her rebounding was something that we could use with Teaira (McCowan) after losing Victoria (Vivians) at the four. We could use what she had to help us. She has certainly helped us get to where we are.”
Just about everyone in the country was after Howard almost immediately. She was the only player in A&M history with over 1,000 career rebounds. In 2017-18, she was second only to McCowan in rebounds in the Southeastern Conference and was seventh nationally at 12.2 rebounds a game. Not to mention she had 20 double-doubles last season.
She took trips to Connecticut, Florida State and South Carolina, but the one to Starkville changed things. The fans and the coaches made the difference and she felt right at home in what Schaefer wanted for his players.
“For the player that I am, this was a really good fit for me,” Howard said. “I haven’t mastered the defensive piece, but I like the system and how hard we go. I want to go hard so I really appreciate that. A lot of our offensive sets, we all are in good situations individually because (Schaefer) knows what all of our strengths are and he exposes it.”
Schaefer promised Howard on her visit that he would develop her game to get to the next level. In order for her to reach her dreams of doing that, she would have to be viewed as more than a rebounder and, at 5-11, would have to play more as a guard.
The point production had gone up every year at A&M from 4.6 points as a freshman to 10.2 as a sophomore and 12.1 last season. Where Howard has elevated her game is beyond the paint. She shot just 41 3-pointers in her first three seasons and made just 14 of those. This year, she’s 26-of-77 from deep and has shown her ability to drive to the rim, pull up in the midrange and hit from long range.
“I have the opportunity now to show that I can do more than just rebounding and being a midrange player,” Howard said. “I am probably better at being a midrange player, but the 3-pointer is something that I have worked on here and they’re allowing me to do it.”
That’s given MSU more of a threat from the outside this season after the Bulldogs lost four 3-point shooters. The loss of Chloe Bibby has created an even bigger need for Howard to at least be a threat with Andra Espinoza-Hunter and Bre’Amber Scott.
The entire team has shown their versatility to this point and everyone that gets regular minutes have been an asset down the stretch. She believes they’re all playing their best basketball at the right time despite only getting major minutes from seven or eight players on a given night.
“Even though our bench is short, our bench is really good,” Howard said. “We showed it this past weekend when I was in foul trouble. We had different combinations on the court and they all did really well. We have all of the pieces that we need, it’s just a matter of coming together and executing the game plan.”
Howard has executed the game plan more times than not herself. She’s made her senior season her best season through 32 games with 16.2 points per game, 8.2 rebounds and a 52 percent field goal percentage. It helped her get first-team All-SEC honors as well as a spot on the SEC All-Tournament team last week.
The Bulldogs had three players on that unit as McCowan and Jazzmun Holmes joined Howard and they all got a chance to cut down the nets. It was the first championship game win for Howard in her entire career and gave her the second trophy of the season to this point.
Now, she wants one more title before she moves on from Starkville.
“This is my last ride and I want to go out with a bang,” Howard said. “I’ve always wanted to win and have championships. (The SEC Championship) was my first time cutting down a net. I can only imagine what it will feel like playing for a natty. I got a little taste of it in the conference, but (a national championship) is what I’ve always wanted.”
Her final game could come at any time starting next weekend, but Howard has already started to reflect on the journey that is her career. She’s relished her time in Starkville, but also doesn’t regret the three years she spent in College Station.
It’s been a four-year period that she won’t ever forget and the two schools shaped the player and person that she is and that she will become.
“I’m really grateful for my journey,” Howard said. “A&M was a really good school for me. I got my degree and gained a lot of relationships with people. I wouldn’t change anything. I think God let’s everything happen for a reason so I would do it the same.”