Close but not enough

South Carolina center Elem Ibiam (33) attempts a shot as Mississippi State forward Breanna Richardson (3) and  center Martha Alwal (10) defend in the second half. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

South Carolina center Elem Ibiam (33) attempts a shot as Mississippi State forward Breanna Richardson (3) and center Martha Alwal (10) defend in the second half. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

STARKVILLE – Vic Schaefer is beginning to change the culture surrounding Mississippi State women’s basketball.

The Bulldogs head coach has his team competitive in his second season and has taken two Top 10 opponents to the wire at home this year.

However, MSU has come up short in both of those outings including Thursday night’s 71-64 loss to No. 6 South Carolina. It was a one possession game until the Gamecocks buried a 3-pointer with under a minute to go to stay atop the Southeastern Conference standings.

“At the end of the day you lose to No. 6 in the country,” Schaefer said. “I’m sure everybody walked out of the arena and thought ‘man, we’re close. Those kids played hard and had a chance to win’. But we’re not very happy in our locker room. Just like with Tennessee, we felt like this was our chance to beat No. 6.”

South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley could see the improvement in Schaefer’s squad as well. The six-time WNBA All-Star and Hall of Famer complimented the direction in which State’s program is headed in.

“We knew coming into the basketball game that Mississippi State is playing extremely well,” Staley said. “They’ve been in every single basketball game. It’s only a matter of time before they win basketball games like this. It took us a few years to figure out what this league is all about. I think this Mississippi State team is well on its way. They’re above the curve at this point.”

Staley’s Gamecocks played well in their own right. South Carolina tied a school record with 14 blocked shots including seven by 6-foot-4 junior Elem Ibiam.

“I don’t really think about blocking shots,” Ibiam said. “Our coaches just told us to stay on our feet. Luckily we’re tall enough to just put our hands up and it’s easier for us to block shots. It’s just having the advantage of being taller.”

Aleighsa Welch lifted the Gamecocks with a double-double performance of 18 points and 11 rebounds. Khadijah Sessions added 14 points and Asia Dozier chipped in 10 as South Carolina won its fifth straight game to improve to 21-2 on the year and 9-1 in the SEC.

State shot 33.3 percent from the field but went long stretches without a field goal. At one point in the first half the Bulldogs went 13 minutes without a field goal.

“I felt like we probably left some points out there,” Schaefer said. “There were a couple of times where we might not have executed correctly but it’s not like we had a bunch of turnovers. We only had five for the game.”

Jerica James paced Mississippi State with 11 points in 19 minutes off the bench. James was 3-of-5 behind the 3-point arc in the second half for the Bulldogs.

“I ran a lot of plays tonight for JJ because she probably shooting the ball better than anybody on my team,” Schaefer said. “My confidence in her right now is sky high when it comes to shooting the basketball.”

Martha Alwal and Savannah Carter each contributed 10 points as MSU dropped to 16-8 on the year and 3-8 in the conference.

Up next for the Bulldogs is a road trip to Auburn at 2 p.m. on Sunday. The Lady Tigers claimed a 82-74 victory in Starkville on Jan. 5.

Schaefer understands his team is on the cusp of being one of the premier teams in the SEC but is still missing a few pivotal plays that have prevented an upset of one the league’s elite.

“I really think there’s more inside these kids,” Schaefer said. “I think they can win these games. If I didn’t I wouldn’t ask it of them. I’ve been around long enough to know who can and who can’t. I really have a lot of confidence and faith in these kids.”

I have covered Mississippi State in some capacity since 2004 and joined the Daily Journal staff in 2013. I enjoy short walks on the beach, performing concerts in my car and watching professional wrestling.

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