Wednesday night’s season opener for Mississippi State women’s basketball was a stark contrast to the Bulldogs’ 2021-22 season in every sense of the phrase.
After MSU limped to the finish line last year with just seven available players, the Bulldogs played eight before the first quarter even came to an end and had 11 log minutes in the first half. It allowed MSU to pressure aggressively and the efficiency was off the charts as the team put a show in game one of the Sam Purcell era with a 104-47 victory over Mississippi Valley State.
It was a stark contrast to what fans saw the last two seasons and sent a clear message that a new Sheriff was in town with intentions of making MSU women’s hoops a threat again.
“Dream come true,” Purcell exclaimed. “From the bottom of my heart, I thank everybody. To think that everything that we’ve overcome from the storyline to the narrative, I couldn’t be more excited about where we’re at.”
It was about as well-played a game as the first-time head coach could ask for with the exception of rebounding which he said the team will work on Thursday. MSU shot 66% (41-of-62) in the game and hit 10-of-23 3-pointers while making 71% of their free throws at 12-of-17.
Ahlana Smith hit a trio of those threes and the Louisville transfer said that the team has put in work in the gym getting shots up.
“Shooting was key (in the offseason),” Smith said of the efficient offensive performance. “A basketball game comes down to which team scores more points so we’re putting time in the gym and I think it showed off (Wednesday).”
Purcell came out of the gates on Wednesday showcasing the intensity, athleticism and depth that he’s put on the floor in year one. After relying heavily on Jerkaila Jordan and Anastasia Hayes to dictate the offense in most games last year, the Bulldogs got scoring from up and down the roster in the first half.
State jumped out to a 28-8 lead after one quarter getting scoring from five different players and none of them were Hayes. It would be a 22-0 run at one point by the Bulldogs to build that lead and they rolled out a 55-18 lead at the half.
Offensive efficiency was the name of the game in that first half. The team shot an incredible 75% from the floor and 46% from 3-point range and had forced 12 turnovers in that full court pressure to build the lead.
“We had two great closed exhibitions where I saw that. The team was dialed in, but I needed to see the lights come on. (Wednesday) the lights came on,” Purcell said. “When you have that kind of group who is more about ‘we’ than ‘me’, special things can happen.”
It was more business in the third quarter as the Bulldogs pushed that lead out further with a 32-point quarter and the team would cruise the rest of the way in what was the largest margin of victory for a new coach in his opening game in Bulldog history. It was also the largest margin for MSU since 2019 when the Bulldogs beat McNeese State by 81 points.
What was perhaps most impressive about the Bulldogs’ night as the depth that the team showed. 12 different players played with nine of those scoring in the game. Jordan led the way with 18 points on 7-of-11 shooting, Smith had 15 points on 4-of-5 and 3-of-4 from 3-point range, St. Bonaventure transfer Asianae Johnson finished with 16 points on 7-of-8 with 2-of-2 3-pointers and six assists and Florida State transfer Kourtney Weber finished with 12 points and four rebounds.
The All-SEC guard Hayes didn’t have to do much from a scoring perspective with the added depth of the team finishing with three points on just 1-of-4, but she dished out eight assists and had just two turnovers with four rebounds.
The best story of the night was the return of Jessika Carter. The preseason second-team All-SEC player missed all of last year after dealing with an arrest and also was public in her struggle with depression but found her way back on the floor for the first time since the 2020-21 season. She finished the night with 16 points and 10 rebounds for her first double-double since February 21, 2021.
“It felt really good being back and being on the court with my teammates. They give me so much confidence on the court because coming in I was nervous about the game,” Carter said. “They gave me so much confidence that it ended up working out.”
With one down, Purcell is now excited about Friday’s ball game. The Bulldogs will be hosting North Alabama in a special night that will include the presentation of LaToya Thomas’ jersey being hung in the rafters.
Purcell is hoping that with the Georgia football game in town the next day, Thomas’ presentation and what his team has shown in game one that it will be a big crowd on hand for the 5:30 p.m. showdown.
“Everybody got to have fun but (Thursday) let’s watch the film and get dialed in,” Purcell said. “What a great role model (Thomas is) for my young women, women’s basketball and Mississippi State. I’m going to call the NCAA and see if she has any eligibility.
“I’m asking all of our fanbase to help me out. Let’s give her the roses, the energy and the bottom bowl sold out that she deserves. What a great opportunity that would be to leave with a win and most importantly an feeling she’ll never forget.”
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