STARKVILLE, Miss. – Last week’s trip to Europe was an opportunity for the Mississippi State women’s basketball team to learn about itself on and off the court.
After returning to Starkville, head coach Vic Schaefer considers the opportunity a success. Not only did the Bulldogs roll to a perfect 4-0 record in dominating fashion, they also left a positive impression of Mississippi State on the many they came in contact with.
“It was a tremendous educational experience. I thought it was a chance for our team to really grow together on and off the court. I loved our competitive spirit in the games; even though three games weren’t very competitive, we were competitive,” Schaefer said.
“We are so grateful to our administration for allowing us to go, and their commitment to our program because this is something that is very important and a once in a lifetime trip for our players.”
The trip began with a flight cancellation and then an emergency landing in Nova Scotia, but the Bulldogs did not allow the difficulties to hinder them as they arrived in Belgium just a few hours before their first game and proceeded to defeat Sparta Laarne 122-56 behind 19 points from Breanna Richardson and 13 points, 17 rebounds from Chinwe Okorie in her first action as a Bulldog.
The following night the Bulldogs wrapped their stay in Belgium with another dominant win, this time a 105-45 triumph against Waregem Basket. It was a pair of rookies leading the way as heralded freshmen Victoria Vivians and Blair Schaefer tallied 13 points to go with 12 from Richardson.
Vivians made her mark the following contest, the team’s lone game in Paris against AMW Select, a squad consisting of professional all-stars. The Forest, Miss., native poured in 10 first-half points en route to finishing the game with 15 and earning MVP honors as MSU rallied to a 74-52 victory.
“The game against AMW Select was a very physical, aggressive basketball game, but I was proud of how our kids responded in that game,” Schaefer said.
Vivians paced MSU with 22 points and 10 rebounds in the trip’s final game, a 124-30 victory against Aoste Select in front of a standing-room-only crowd. Richardson followed with 20 points as the pair combined to average a team-best 15.3 ppg for the trip.
The Bulldogs’ effort was a balanced one, with 11 players averaging 5.0 ppg or more for the quartet of contests. The balanced scoring gave Schaefer a great deal of optimism in the balance and depth his squad could have come the season opener Nov. 14.
“I thought we had great continuity with our substitutions, and the more we played the better feel everyone had for what certain players could do and were comfortable doing,” Schaefer said. “It started with our point guard play. I was really pleased with Morgan (William) and JJ (Jerica James), and it permeated through the rest of the team all the way up to the five.
“Martha (Alwal) didn’t play near the minutes she’s used to playing during the season, and yet, she’s such a good teammate on the bench, really our biggest cheerleader and supporter of her teammates. I always want more from Martha because I think she has so much more. Her top end is really still nowhere in sight, but she’s still pretty dang good as a first team All-SEC player.”
Alwal averaged 7.0 points and 3.5 rebounds per game, but the help she will receive from Okorie and freshman LaKaris Salter will be beneficial as the team looks to make a postseason push.
Okorie was the team’s leading rebounder, hauling in 9.3 boards to go with a 9.0 scoring average. Salter added 6.3 ppg while pulling down 4.5 rebounds per contest.
Although Schaefer was excited to see his team perform on the court, he was most excited to see his players have fun enjoying historic cities such as Ghent, Paris and Lyon before capping the trip with fun in the sun on the French Riviera in Nice.
One of the third-year head coach’s highlights was participating in an Amazing Race-style competition throughout the historic portion of Paris.
“You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Martha, Sherise (Williams) and Chinwe riding a bicycle in downtown Paris during rush hour traffic. I was so proud of those post players and their effort to win the Amazing Race. Although we didn’t win, it wasn’t for lack of effort,” Schaefer said. “It was really fun for me to be with that team and see how hard they competed and watch them ride bicycles. You’ve got 6-foot-4, 6-foot-4, and 6-foot-2 trying to negotiate between cars and around buses on a bicycle they’ve never ridden before. It was a lot of fun.”
Seeing his players have fun enjoying a part of the world they may never visit again gave Schaefer a rewarding feeling, especially when it came to seniors Alwal, James, Kendra Grant and Savannah Carter.
“Once again I’m so appreciative of our administration for giving us the opportunity. It’s very rewarding to see young people have fun, enjoy themselves and experience things they’ve never experienced before. In coaching, that’s one of the real rewards of the job,” Schaefer said. “It’s been very, very satisfying to be a part of providing opportunities and experiences to young people that most people don’t get.”
After returning from Europe, it was a brief weekend break and then back to the grind with fall classes beginning.
For the Bulldogs, now the task is taking the chemistry developed in Europe and using it to make a run toward the NCAA Tournament.“We talked about in our first team meeting on Monday that the next goal, in my opinion, is getting this team to the NCAA Tournament,” Schaefer said. “That’s our focus, and that is my goal.”