Unusual defensive plan sends Bulldogs to SEC Tournament title game

By Brett Hudson

GREENVILLE, South Carolina — Mississippi State’s No. 1 plan was thrown into doubt six minutes into the game, and the backup plan met the same fate eight minutes later.

This was not the time to go to Plan C. This was the semifinals of the SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament and the subject of these plans was Missouri’s Sophie Cunningham, having earlier in the game set the new school record for career scoring and already scored 42 points in her first two games of the tournament.

Plan C was ultimately the winning option.

By all traditional measures, Cunningham was the only thing keeping the upset-minded Tigers in contention with Mississippi State: 33 points on 11-for-16 shooting, 5-for-9 from 3-point range, would be considered Herculean in most contexts. But in this one, MSU making Cunningham’s road to that production as difficult as it was, is what sent the Bulldogs to a fourth straight SEC Tournament championship game appearance with a 71-56 win.

MSU’s Plan A for Cunningham was Jordan Danberry. She is quick enough to make Cunningham’s dribble-drive game almost impossible and she showed admirable fight in the post, battling to seal Cunningham over the top and deny entry passes. That plan looked like a good one — until Danberry picked up two fouls in six minutes, forever altering her usage. (She ended the game with 25 minutes; she’s played more than that in all but four games against conference foes this season.)

Plan B was Bre’Amber Scott, the more imposing and defensively adept of MSU’s two wing threats. She also picked up two fouls, hers coming before the midway point of the second quarter.

Plan C was Anriel Howard. She did not relent her usual heavy workload offensively — 19 points and 10 rebounds, 50 percent from the field and 60 percent from 3-point range — and added the challenge of handling one of the conference’s most prolific scorers.

She did it to rave reviews.

“It’s really hard to because Sophie is a great player,” Scott told Matt Wyatt Media. “We try to limit her touches as much as we could, keep her from shooting as much as we could. She’s a great player, she’s going to hit the shots she gets.”

Limiting shots is yet another Cunningham statistic that requires context. Yes, she attempted 16 shots, something she’s only done three times this year — one of them in the regular season meeting between the two, which Missouri won. But with Cunningham shooting 68.75 from the field and every other Tiger combining to shoot 33.3 percent (8-24), Missouri surely would have preferred Cunningham get more than 16 shots.

But MSU prevented it the only way they knew how.

“You have to make her uncomfortable, you have to make her work,” Howard said. “I’m a bigger person, so I think that bothered her a little bit. She still ended up with a lot of points, but I think it made her uncomfortable.”

Scott added, “You have to be physical with her, you have to let her know that you’re there. If it takes getting a foul, that’s what it takes, but you have to let her know you’re here and she’s not going to be the bully.”

Vic Schaefer thinks it’s possible the foul situation ended up being a good thing for MSU. Not only did it force Howard onto Cunningham and reveal her to be up to the challenge, but it also forced Cunningham to deal with three different body types and defending styles.

Schaefer also believes the secret is the lack of production from every other player. No Tiger scored more than six points; no other Tiger starter scored more than three. Cunningham was responsible for 11 of Missouri’s 19 made shots, five of its nine made 3-pointers and six of its nine made free throws.

They recognize Cunningham is the player who, as coaches say, is going to get theirs. The job is to make sure the supporting cast doesn’t beat you — and make life as hard as possible on that marquee scorer.

MSU did both, and now it has a shot at the SEC Tournament championship that has eluded this program for four decades.