STARKVILLE, Miss. -New Mississippi State women's basketball coach Vic Schaefer has promised a squad which competes with relentless effort and plays hard on both ends of the floor.
Fans of the Bulldogs saw all that and a victory Friday night in Schaefer's coaching debut. Behind a double-double from Martha Alwal, MSU opened the season with a 72-66 win over Houston in the Humphrey Coliseum.
Alwal finished with a career-high 23 points and 18 rebounds, including 11 on the offensive end. Alwal's big night included four blocked shots on the defensive end and 9-of-10 foul shooting on the offensive end. Kendra Grant also tallied a career-best points tally, notching 22 in the contest.
Alwal also blocked four shots, giving her 86 for her young MSU career to tie Sharon Thompson for fourth in the school record books.
"I am really proud of the way the kids played tonight," Schaefer said. "This game was a great reward for their hard work. These kids have worked harder than they ever have in their lives. Seeing them rewarded with a victory and competing until the very end was satisfying."
State built an early seven-point lead and led by four points at halftime. MSU only trailed twice in the game's final 20 minutes.
"Last year all I thought about was defense," Alwal said. "I didn't care for scoring. This year coach (Schaefer) is pushing me to get more involved in offense and that's what I'm focused on. When we (Grant and Alwal) do well, I feel like everyone else feeds off of us. If we continue to do well, as we're doing right now, thEn it'll help the team a lot more."
The Bulldogs grabbed their first lead at 4-3 on a layup by Alwal. Houston regrouped for a 9-2 run and a 12-6 advantage. The Bulldogs then got a lift from the second-five as it helped piece together a 7-0 run for an 18-17 lead. Jessy Ward's first-career three-pointer brought the Maroon and White within one, and an Alwal layup pushed the squad ahead.
MSU held Houston to 28 percent first-half shooting from the field and led 32-28 at the intermission.
"Defense was the most impressive part of the game," Grant said. "Our biggest thing the past couple of games has been rebounding. I feel like we did a lot better than in our last game (a 55-49 exhibition win over Shorter)."
A basket by Grant ran the MSU advantage to nine points at 38-29 with 17:45 left to play. Houston rallied for a 43-42 advantage and also led 49-47 with 10:36 remaining.
A 3-point play by Alwal gave the hosts the lead for good with 9:42 left in regulation.
Houston got as close as three, 63-60, with 3:12 to play, but senior Darriel Gaynor drained a three from the left corner to give MSU a two-possession lead it would not relinquish.
For the contest, the Bulldogs hit 22 of 69 shots from the field (31.9 percent), 3 of 8 shots from 3-point range (37.5 percent) and 25 of 34 shots from the foul line (73.5 percent). The Cougars hit 25 of 79 shots from the field (31.6 percent), 5 of 26 shots from 3-point range (19.2 percent) and 11 of 15 shots from the foul line (73.3 percent).
MSU held a 65-39 rebounding advantage. The Bulldogs had 11 assists and 26 turnovers, while the Cougars had 11 assists and 17 turnovers.
The 65 boards and 34 trips to the charity stripe were the most since the 2009-10 team had 71 rebounds and 37 free-throw attempts against Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
Grant and Sherise Williams each had nine rebounds for MSU. Katia May had four assists, and Darriel Gaynor had two of her squad's four steals.
Houston received 16 points from Porsche Landry, 12 points from Marissa Ashton and 10 points from Jessieka Palmer.MSU remains home for a 7 p.m. start Monday against Hampton. The Lady Pirates opened the season with a 78-41 win over Southern Mississippi Friday afternoon in Hattiesburg.