DULUTH, Ga. – Mississippi State junior Martha Alwal joined the school’s 1,000-point club and the Bulldogs joined the second round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament Wednesday night.
Led by 17 points from Kendra Grant and 16 points from Alwal, Mississippi State rallied late for a 73-70 victory over Missouri in an opening-round game of the event at The Arena at Gwinnett Center.
No. 13 seed MSU (19-12) will now face No. 5 seed Florida (18-11) at 1:30 p.m. CT Thursday in the second round of the tournament. The game will be televised regionally by SportSouth and may be seen online on ESPN3. Florida won the lone meeting between the schools during the regular season.
MSU won a conference tournament game for the first time since 2011 while beating Missouri in the first-ever meeting between the two schools in the event.
“I’m awfully proud of our kids,” said MSU head coach Vic Schaefer, who won his first postseason game with the Bulldogs. “I am so proud of the team, the perseverance. That was the word on the board tonight. The words were perseverance and resilience.
“We didn’t play well Sunday and prior to that had back-to-back-to-back overtime games. Missouri kept coming at you. Every time they left somebody open, they made a shot. It’s demoralizing to be quite honest when you go through and talk about guarding them, you know what they want to do, how they want to do it.”
A day removed from being named First Team All-SEC and co-Defensive Player of the Year, Alwal became the 20th player in Mississippi State history to join the school’s 1,000-point club and the first since Diamber Johnson in 2012.
“It’s such a big accomplishment for me,” Alwal said. “I never thought I would reach this milestone. I’m really happy I got it and I wouldn’t have done it without my great teammates.”
The Bulldogs made it a priority to get the ball inside starting with the early stages of Wednesday’s game. Alwal penetrated, drew a foul and hit two free throws for an early 12-8 lead.
Missouri (17-13) battled back for a 14-12 lead. The Tigers then dialed long distance to put together a 12-3 run for a 26-17 lead. Bri Kulas capped that run with a jumper in the lane.
The Bulldogs closed within three twice before tying the contest at 31 on an old-fashioned 3-point play by Alwal.
“I’m so proud that we stayed the course the entire game. Even when we were down, we kept competing,” Alwal said. “I’m really happy because we made it past the first round since I’ve been here. This is such an exciting win for us.”
MSU capped the first half with a 7-2 run to take a 38-34 lead the intermission.
MSU stretched the lead to nine at 43-34 on a Kendra Grant 3-point basket. Missouri then hit three of its 11 3-point baskets during a 17-2 run as the Tigers grabbed a 51-45 lead with 12:21 left. The Bulldogs fell down by as many as seven before scoring six straight points to pull within one.
“This win means a lot to me and the team,” Grant said. “This is the first time since I’ve been here that we won our first game in the tournament, so this is a big win for us.”
A tip-in by MSU’s Ketara Chapel tied the game at 57 with 8:39 left. The Bulldogs fell down five before finally taking the lead at 66-64 on a basket by SEC All-Freshman Team selection Breanna Richardson with 4:17 left. The Bulldogs took the lead for good at 69-68 on two free throws by Alwal with 2:07 left.
Missouri was held to two field goals over the final 5:47 of play.
“That’s win number 19 for this team this year, a tremendous accomplishment for them,” Schaefer said. “It was not Martha’s best night. Our best player, we didn’t get our best night from her. We put two freshmen on the floor, and that’s when we made our run from down six and got it tied.
“I am proud of the kids and our energy and our effort. We’re excited about tomorrow.”
For the contest, the Bulldogs hit 28 of 61 shots from the field (45.9 percent), 4 of 14 shots from 3-point range (28.6 percent) and 13 of 20 shots from the foul line (65.0 percent). The Tigers hit 24 of 52 shots from the field (46.2 percent), 11 of 23 shots from 3-point range (47.8 percent) and 11 of 16 shots from the foul line (68.8 percent).
The teams were even at 32 in rebounds. MSU had eight assists and 12 turnovers, while Missouri had 14 assists and 18 turnovers.
Richardson was also in double figures for MSU with 12 points.
Missouri received a double-double from Kulas (18 points, 11 rebounds). Sierra Michaelis added 16 points, while Morgan Eye added 10 points.