Mississippi State women's basketball battles back from 27 down but can't complete upset of Georgia

Mississippi State interim head coach Doug Novak calls out to his team during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Alabama State, Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021, in Starkville, Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
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STARKVILLE — For the 10 minutes Mississippi State women’s basketball spent in the locker room at halftime Thursday, things could’ve gone another way. On Sunday, a poor first half against Ole Miss led to a tense intermission and an argument between players that needed to be smoothed over.

It wouldn’t have been outlandish to consider the same outcome, considering the Bulldogs had trailed Georgia by as many as 27 points in the second quarter and entered halftime down 20. But interim coach Doug Novak spent the last few days imploring his players to avoid those self-destructive tendencies.

Mississippi State still lost to No. 13 Georgia at the Humphrey Coliseum, 66-63. But the response out of the locker room left Novak pumping his fists, with players spilling off the bench in celebration at the sudden change in fortunes.

"We fought," guard Myah Taylor said. "We ended up on the losing end, but the fight that we showed tonight I just think gives us that extra boost to keep going forward in the SEC."

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Mississippi State (11-6, 2-3 SEC) could’ve folded. The team could’ve folded at plenty of other points this season, for that matter — with coach Nikki McCray-Penson stepping down and player transfers mixing with locker room drama.

The Bulldogs didn’t fold, though, no matter how easy it would’ve been. They opened the second half with 13 straight points, turning that 27-point deficit into seven before Georgia (15-3, 4-2) even had a chance to respond. And then that seven-point deficit fell to four, then to three, then to one.

In that fashion — 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 later adding: "We came out (in the second half) and just fought and clawed."

They still lost, Georgia proving the superior opponent down the stretch. But the fact it was a contest at all down the stretch considering the beginning was noteworthy enough, a moral victory in a sport where moral victories don’t often carry much weight.

Perhaps it does carry weight Thursday, though. Mississippi State reached its nadir, stopped its decent and found a ladder back to contention in the course of 10-minute halftime discussion, creating the kind of performance it will hope to replicate.

"They got lost in the game in a positive way," Novak said. "They were pulling for each other, and they were making each other better, and they hurt in that locker room after — as they should. Because when you invest that much, there should be pain and there should be hurt. I was very proud of what we did in that second half."

Inside the locker room

When Mississippi State reached the locker room at halftime, trailing by 20, Novak pointed to four words written on the white board: "Stay in the fight."

That was a lofty goal following a first half in which Georgia was far and away the better team. But Novak reminded his players of a game he watched a few days ago, when one team began by trailing 22-0 yet came back to win.

"It's never over," Novak said.

Taylor echoed him, reminding her teammates that the second half could go one of two ways. It could get worse if Mississippi State completely capitulated. Or they could regroup.

"We can respond, or we can either get embarrassed," Taylor said. "And I think we responded very well."

A tale of two halves

Mississippi State shot just 28.9% in the opening half, and the first quarter was even worse. After holding a 7-4 advantage, Georgia took over, scoring 25 straight points over a 10-minute period spanning between the first and second quarters. In that stretch, Mississippi State missed 18 shots before guard Anastasia Hayes converted a layup.

That built a hole that seemed too steep to climb out of, with Georgia converting 54.5% of its shots in the first two periods. Novak had focused in on three defensive keys in the game: conversion defense, post defense and rebounding.

"For whatever reason, we were not quite ready to match their physicality," Novak said. "Some teams can take a night off and still hang in there. We have to go above and beyond every night to stay in there."

That flipped in the second half, though, with Mississippi State hitting 56.7% of its shots while Georgia made 32.1%. The intensity on defense improved for Mississippi State out of halftime, and the offense improved with it.

Rebounding

With 6-foot-4 center Jenna Staiti on the floor, Mississippi State doesn’t have a player to match up. Denae Carter returned, but the 6-foot freshman only could do so much.

Georgia dominated the rebound category, pulling in 17 offensive boards and 50 overall — 22 more than Mississippi State managed. Staiti pulled down 10.

That hasn’t been an unusual trend for Mississippi State, a team lacking much size. But Mississippi State turned the ball over just four times while Georgia had 16 giveaways, allowing the game to stay close.

"A lot of things went wrong," Taylor said. "We know that. We try to move forward from it."

This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: Mississippi State women's basketball comeback falls short vs Georgia

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