MSU women trying to fight out of inevitable slump

Every basketball team – including the remarkable Golden State Warriors — goes through a slump.

Well, every team except the UConn women, who have now won 104 consecutive games since autumn of 2014. And it says here even the UConn women wouldn't have that streak if they played in a league like the SEC.

But back to the original point: Nearly all basketball teams, at every level, go through a streak when your shoes feel heavy, shots go all the way in and come back out, every rebound seems just out of reach, every call seems to go the other way and when your opponent just can't miss.

Golden State lost by 22 the other night against Denver, a team that is seven games under .500.

It happens to the best of them. It has happened at the wrong time for Mississippi State's women, who lost two straight games to end the regular season and enter the Southeastern Conference Women's Tournament this week with a 27-3 record.

The first of those two losses – 78-75 in overtime to a good Kentucky team on the road – was no major cause for concern. It was the second State loss of the season at the time and both were in overtime and both on the road to ranked teams.

The second straight loss this past Sunday, however, was alarming. Tennessee thrashed State 82-64 on Senior Day in Starkville. Unranked Tennessee out-hustled, out-worked, out-shot, out-played State. You kept waiting for State to make that run, but the run never came. Defensively, the Bulldogs couldn't get enough stops. Offensively, they couldn't get any rhythm.

State was out-rebounded 39-26, and you know what rebounding is all about, right? That's right: effort.

“I was disappointed in our effort,” Vic Schaefer said. “... We were beaten in all the toughness categories.”

Schaefer said a lot more, but you get the gist. The coach seemed dumbfounded that his team could play   so poorly in such a situation: that is, with the SEC regular season title at stake and before the biggest home crowd in program history.

There is a danger here in overlooking the big picture, which is that State enters the SEC Tournament with a 27-3 record, the best in school history and still in contention for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They did draw 10,500 to The Hump for a women's basketball game. The seniors who were celebrated Sunday have now won 104 games – and counting – in their careers. So much has been achieved.

And all that success combined makes the two straight losses seem all the worse.

"I wish I could shake the hands of all 10,500 people who were here today,” Schaefer said. “They did their part and deserved better."

So now, it's Schaefer's job to try to flip the switch, and get his team to play “hungry” again, to play with the passion and purpose that enabled them to win 27 of 28 before last week.

“I’m very concerned, but I also know what the answer is,” Schaefer told reporters. “I know how to fix it. We’ve all got to be responsible.”

When State is at its best offensively, the Bulldogs play the game inside out. They look inside to the two post players, Chinwe Okorie and Teaira McCowan, for point-blank baskets. That, in turn, opens things on the perimeter. Sunday, against Tennessee, Okorie took just three shots. McCowan took just four. Neither one of them made a bucket, which really is shocking. Okorie had just one rebound in 15 minutes, McCowan just five in 25.

State, which usually gets 16 points and 12 rebounds from the post position, got zero points and six rebounds. There were other problems but that's a big one there, a good place to start.

A silver lining? Well there is this: South Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee – the three teams to beat State – are all on the other side of the SEC bracket. State wouldn't have to play any of the three until the finals.

Of course, there won't be any finals if the Bulldogs don't play better than they did Sunday.

Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address is rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.