USC Women's Basketball

Tale of the tape: How do Mississippi State and South Carolina match up?

Dawn Staley: South Carolina, MSU will be ‘swinging for the fences’ in top-15 matchup

South Carolina women's basketball coach Dawn Staley discusses the rivalry between the Gamecocks and Mississippi State and how USC has managed to get the upper hand over MSU in many contests in the biggest games.
Up Next
South Carolina women's basketball coach Dawn Staley discusses the rivalry between the Gamecocks and Mississippi State and how USC has managed to get the upper hand over MSU in many contests in the biggest games.

A little over a month ago, the thought of South Carolina playing a competitive game, much less beating Mississippi State seemed like wishful thinking for Gamecock fans. At 4-4, USC had been blown out twice by top-10 teams at home and struggled against lesser ones. MSU, meanwhile, was 8-0 and had soundly thrashed then-No. 10 Texas on the road.

But when Dawn Staley’s team travels to Starkville on Thursday for a showdown on ESPN, it will enter with plenty of momentum, feeling confident about its chances.

Carolina has won eight games in a row, including some tough road victories. MSU, meanwhile, has fallen on the road to No. 5 Oregon and gotten upset scares from Marquette and Georgia.

So how do the Gamecocks and Bulldogs match up now?

Frontcourt

Last year, Mississippi State ran a four-guard lineup that rotated around All-American center Teaira McCowan. This season, the Bulldogs are far more post-oriented. In addition to McCowan, coach Vic Schaefer has a pair of talented forwards in Anriel Howard, one of the SEC’s best rebounders, and Chloe Bibby, a dangerous outside presence who can body up smaller defenders.

Alexis Jennings will likely have the unenviable task of covering McCowan, and she’ll have to work hard to counteract the significant height difference between them. Expect the two to go at it in an incredibly physical battle that will likely involve one or both getting in foul trouble.

“We certainly have to make her play on both sides of the ball ... we’re going to attack her. We’re going to try to do what we need to do to eliminate her production. The more minutes she’s on the floor, she’s a really hard guard for anybody in the country, so we got to go at her,” Staley said of McCowan.

Mikiah Herbert Harrigan will probably be asked to guard Howard, and for as good a start as the junior has had this year, this will be her greatest challenge yet. Howard stands just 5-foot-11 and still manages to pull down an extraordinary number of boards.

That leaves Bibby to be shadowed by a South Carolina guard. Of the Gamecocks’ starting guard trio of Tyasha Harris, Bianca Cuevas-Moore and Te’a Cooper, Cooper seems to have the best combination of speed and strength necessary to counteract Bibby’s 6-foot-1 frame. The plan there, Staley said, is to run her off the 3-point line and force her inside.

Advantage: Mississippi State

Backcourt

Three-point shooting has been hit or miss for Carolina this season. When it’s on, the Gamecocks have arguably the league’s most explosive offensive. When it’s not, they’ve tried to rely on dribble drive penetration, with mixed results.

Just as Bibby will likely create a matchup problem for USC on the defensive end, the three-guard Carolina rotation will probably be a concern for MSU. If the Gamecocks are hitting their 3s, Mississippi State will have to send more defenders to the arc, providing more space for penetration and uncontested looks. If the long-range game is off, it might be easier for the Bulldogs to sit back in a zone and collapse on any drives.

The guards Mississippi State does have aren’t solely distributors — Jordan Danberry is averaging 13.1 points per game, third on the team — but there’s no denying that their offensive production comes second to the posts. MSU ranks 336th nationally in three-point rate, so Staley might pack the paint and dare the guards to take those shots.

“The guards, they pressure the ball really well, and they get timely baskets, so we just gotta defend and try to keep them out of the loop,” Harris said.

Advantage: South Carolina

Bench

South Carolina’s deep rotation has shortened at least somewhat as Staley has found the starting five she likes best, but the Gamecocks still have 10 players averaging more than 10 minutes per game who all have at least one start to their name.

Mississippi State, on the other hand, has stuck with the same lineup to begin every game this year. Schaefer does have some weapons in his reserves, especially in UConn transfer Andra Espinoza-Hunter. Unlike USC, however, those weapons are almost all first- or second-year players without much in the way of big-game experience.

Nelly Perry, Doniyah Cliney, Bianca Jackson and Lele Grissett have all played significant minutes in their careers and give Carolina a veteran presence and edge off the bench. The question will be whether South Carolina can force MSU to use its bench enough for it to matter.

Advantage: South Carolina

Environment

It’s not quite a sellout yet, but Humphrey Coliseum should be wild Thursday night as Mississippi State goes not only for first place in the SEC but also the perception that it is truly top dog in the conference. Staley knows it will an intense atmosphere, and she said she doesn’t want to spend any time comforting or easing her players into it. Rather, this will be the gut-check for the Gamecocks that prepares them for every other hostile crowd they’ll face this year, she said.

“It was a hard place to hear play calls. ... When you go to two national championship games and win an SEC regular season title, that brings out everybody, and that’s a wonderful thing they’ve been able to build there,” Staley said.

Advantage: Mississippi State

Efficiency

Mississippi State has some of the most eye-popping stats in the nation — the Bulldogs rank first in the country in both points scored and scoring margin per 100 possessions, as well as seventh in points allowed per 100 possessions. No other team in the SEC is better at rebounding than MSU, which rebounds more than half of its own misses. The Bulldogs also shoot the ball at one of the best clips in the nation — 55 percent effective field goal rate

The Gamecocks’ numbers, by comparison, aren’t bad but are a step down — 37th in points per 100 possessions, 65th in points allowed per 100 possessions and 37th in margin. Their effective field goal percentage is 47.6.

Advantage: Mississippi State

Schedule

The Bulldogs have faced a easier schedule to date — USC has played three top-10 teams this season, and its strength of schedule ranks 28th nationally, per Warren Nolan. Mississippi State, by comparison, has played just one team currently in the top 10 (but three others in the top 15) and its strength of schedule ranks 36th. Carolina’s opponents have had a win percentage of 58.3, while Mississippi State’s opponents have one of 56.3.

MSU has also played seven games against teams from non-major conferences, compared to five for USC.

Spread

Misssissippi State is the significant favorite over South Carolina — Massey Ratings has the Bulldogs as a 14.5-point favorite. Warren Nolan’s ELO projection has the spread at 11 points in favor of MSU.

Greg Hadley is the beat writer for South Carolina women’s basketball and baseball for GoGamecocks and The State. He also covers football and recruiting.
  Comments