STARKVILLE — During the ten minutes that Mississippi State women’s basketball spent in the locker room on Thursday at halftime, things could have turned out differently. On Sunday, a lackluster first half against Ole Miss led to a tense break and an altercation between players that needed to be ironed out.
It wouldn’t have been bizarre to consider the same outcome, as the Bulldogs were a whopping 27 points behind Georgia in the second quarter and went into halftime with 20 points. But interim coach Doug Novak has spent the past few days begging his players to avoid those self-destructive tendencies.
Mississippi State still lost to No. 13 Georgia at the Humphrey Coliseum, 66-63. But the reaction from the locker room caused Novak to clenched his fists as players jumped off the bench to celebrate the sudden change in fortune.
“We fought,” security guard Myah Taylor said. “We ended up on the losing side, but the fight we showed tonight just gives us that extra boost to stay ahead in the SEC.”
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Mississippi State (11-6, 2-3 SEC) could have folded. The team could have folded on many other points this season, by the way – with the resignation of coach Nikki McCray-Penson and player transfers mixed with drama in the locker room.
However, the Bulldogs didn’t fold, as easy as it might have been. They opened the second half with 13 straight points, turning the 27-point deficit into seven before Georgia (15-3, 4-2) even had a chance to react. And then that deficit fell from seven points to four, then to three, then to one.
That’s how – bit by bit, basket by basket – Mississippi State turned a blowout into a barnburner.
“I hate to use this term, but we’re dead in the water in that first half. We can’t do anything,” Novak said, before adding later: “We came out (in the second half) and just fought and scratched.”
They still lost, and Georgia proved the superior opponent down the line. But the fact that it was a competition, given the beginning, was remarkably enough, a moral victory in a sport where moral victories often don’t carry much weight.
Maybe it will carry weight on Thursday. Mississippi State bottomed out, halted its descent and found a ladder back to battle over the course of the 10-minute halftime discussion, creating the kind of performance it hopes to replicate.
“They lost in the game in a positive way,” said Novak. “They pulled for each other and they made each other better, and they hurt in that locker room – like they should. Because when you invest that much there should be pain and there should be pain. I was very proud of what we did. did in that second half.”
In the dressing room
When Mississippi State reached the locker room at halftime, trailing 20, Novak pointed to four words written on the white board: “Stay in the fight.”
That was a lofty goal after a first half in which Georgia was by far the better side. But Novak reminded his players of a game he saw a few days ago, when a team started 22-0 behind and came back to win.
“It’s never over,” Novak said.
Taylor repeated it, reminding her teammates that the second half could go either way. Things could get worse if the state of Mississippi capitulated completely. Or they can regroup.
“We can react, or we can be ashamed,” Taylor said. “And I think we’ve responded very well.”
A story of two halves
Mississippi State shot just 28.9% in the first half, and the first quarter was even worse. After holding a 7-4 lead, Georgia took over, scoring 25 straight runs over a 10-minute period between the first and second quarters. In that stretch, Mississippi State missed 18 shots before guard Anastasia Hayes converted a layup.
That built a gap that seemed too steep to climb, with Georgia converting 54.5% of its shots in the first two periods. Novak had focused in the game on three defense keys: conversion defense, post defense and rebounding.
“For whatever reason, we weren’t quite ready to match their physicality,” Novak said. “Some teams can take a night off and still persevere. We have to pull out all the stops every night to stay there.”
That changed in the second half, however, with Mississippi state hitting 56.7% of its shots while Georgia made 32.1%. The intensity of the defense improved for the state of Mississippi outside halftime, and the offense improved with it.
With 6-foot-4 center Jenna Staiti on the floor, Mississippi State has no player to match. Denae Carter returned, but the six-foot freshman could only do so much.
Georgia dominated the rebound category, with 17 offensive boards and 50 overall – 22 more than Mississippi State managed. Staiti took down 10.
That’s not an uncommon trend for the state of Mississippi, a team that isn’t very big. But Mississippi State turned the ball only four times, while Georgia had 16 giveaways, keeping the game close.
“A lot of things have gone wrong,” Taylor said. ‘We know that. We’re trying to get rid of it.’