January 28, 2021 

‘It’s like family’: South Carolina, Mississippi State prepare to battle

Dawn Staley, Nikki McCray-Penson and the biggest SEC rivalry goes on

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Former teammates, co-workers and colleagues. And now: equals. 

And rivals.

The legendary, Hall-of-Famers Dawn Staley and Nikki McCray-Penson — who shared the South Carolina bench for nine seasons — face off Thursday night as the Gamecocks (No. 4) visit Starkville to take on Mississippi State (#21) in one of the SEC’s best rivalry games.  

Tonight’s game pits former U.S. Olympic gold medal winning teammates and former colleagues against each other in Staley and McCray, who competed on Team USA together during the 1996 and 2000 Olympics and captured Olympic gold in both of those years.

Additionally McCray-Penson spent nine seasons on Staley’s staff from 2008-09 until 2016-17 before being hired as head coach, first by Old Dominion, then Mississippi State. The two won a national championship together at South Carolina.

 “Going against Nikki, I think it’s going to be pretty cool,” said Staley during her Wednesday media zoom. “It’s a great dynamic to be able to go up against someone that, you know, that was in the trenches with us. We know what she’s made of, we know she’s very disciplined. We know that she’s added about 10 days to the prep for this moment. 

“I am just looking forward to that. You know, I love Nikki like a sister, so I want her to do well in every game besides the ones that we match up,” Staley said.

The rivalry is sweet as well for McCray-Penson.

“South Carolina’s where I got my start as far as building a program into a national powerhouse alongside a dear friend of mine; someone who’s a mentor to me in Dawn Staley, as well as the members of that staff,” said McCray-Penson, who’s in her first year at the helm of the Bulldogs.

“It’s like family,” said McCray-Penson of the feeling she gets thinking about the reunion tonight. “I’m a relationship person and these are our lasting relationships. I’m going to be really excited to see them and we’ll talk after the game, but we’re all competitors and, we want to win, and we want to win the right way.

“But yeah, I mean, nothing changes that; Dawn, staff, the people behind the scenes, they will always always be family to me. I’ve been a part of a program for South Carolina where we built it up, and also was a part of the program when I saw Mississippi State build their program so it has definitely become a rivalry game for us.”

The battle for the SEC has come down to this rivalry during the majority of the last decade. In 2019, Mississippi State claimed its second-straight SEC title with a 68-64 victory over the Gamecocks in Colonial Life Arena during the regular-season finale. Last year, the Bulldogs fell 81-79 in Columbia, as South Carolina went undefeated during league play and finished the season ranked No. 1 in the country.

Looking for a big win

Both teams and its coaches — despite the deep level of affection and familiarity underscoring the game — are looking to outlast the other and bring home a victory.

“I mean, we can’t take anything for granted, the rivalries there. It doesn’t matter where we are in the rankings. They’re gonna want to win. Just as badly as we want,” said Staley. “But I just think is incredible when you reflect on what we both have been able to do with our programs, is quite incredible. I mean, we were the bottom when we took over these programs and then to get to a place where we sustained success over, you know, over 5, 6, 7 years.”

There is definitely history between the two teams and the competition is going to be fun, McCray-Penson agreed.

“This is a game where it has turned into a rivalry game, and both teams have competed in the championships, over the last five years, so there is that history there,” she said. “So coming out for us, we want to be able to execute the game plan. Again, every time we step out on the court, you know we’re trying to win games we’re trying to get better. With COVID, we are a little bit different in the sense of still learning our systems offensively and our defensive system, so there’s newness here across the board.”

Ahead of tonight’s matchup, the Gamecocks are coming off a 69-65 win over LSU on Sunday, while the Bulldogs haven’t played in 11 days. Nevertheless McCray-Penson is not concerned that her team may be a little rusty.

The long layoff has allowed the team to get rest and recover, participate in scrimmages to stay in game mode, watch film and “look at some stuff that we got to continue to get better at across the board,” she said.

“We’re excited to be playing and it’s a great week for us to continue to work on us to get better, especially after our loss to Texas A&M,” McCray-Penson said. “So we got a lot of scrimmaging in to just try to stay in form. We’re very thankful that we still get a get an opportunity to play.”

What’s at stake

The Gamecocks are looking for their 24th straight SEC regular-season victory tonight, which would match its longest SEC win streak – Jan. 3, 2016 through Jan. 26, 2017. Including three wins in the 2020 SEC Tournament, the Gamecocks have defeated an SEC opponent 26 straight games. South Carolina leads the SEC in scoring defense, allowing league opponents just 61.3 points per game. In addition they have scored 62.0 percent of their 81.1 points per game in the paint.

A win tonight would also be the Gamecocks’ 200th SEC regular-season victory with 146 of them having come in their 13 seasons under Staley. Sophomore sensation Aliyah Boston — who’s only played in 46 career games — needs just three blocked shots to move into a tie for 10th in program history in career blocks. 

The stakes are just as high for McCray and MSU.

With MSU being tabbed No. 21 in the most recent poll, the Bulldogs have now spent 124 consecutive weeks inside the AP Top 25, continuing the longest streak in program history and the fifth-longest active streak in the country.

In their game against Troy, the Bulldogs broke the program record and matched the SEC record for 3-pointers made in a single game (18).

Mississippi State has entered a new era this season with McCray-Penson, who replaced Vic Schafer, but boasts a storied program. Since the start of the 2016-17 campaign, Mississippi State owns 139 wins, which is tied for the third-most victories in all of Division I. UConn leads the way with 146 wins, and Baylor is second with 141. Louisville also boasts 139 wins.

Players to watch

Besides the coaching, there is no shortage of SEC talent to watch between the two teams.

Unanimous AP Preseason All-American Boston — this week’s SEC Player of the Week -—continues to make a case for national player of the year consideration. The 6’5 sophomore averages a double-double overall (14.8 ppg/11.3 rpg), in SEC play (17.7/12.7) and against ranked opponents (15.7/11.3). She has pulled in double-digit rebounds in seven straight games and has four 20-point outings in her seven SEC games this season. In the last seven days she is averaging 20.7 points on 54.5 percent shooting, 13.7 rebounds and 5.7 blocks over three games, including two against ranked opponents.

“She’s faced pretty much everything — double teams, triple teams… and she has it under control,” said McCray-Penson. “She’s not a player that you can rattle. You know she’s gonna play at her tempo her pace. But with her basketball IQ, her ability to move without the ball, and just let the game come to her, that makes her just dangerous.”

Gamecock junior point guard Destanni Henderson will be key for a team that likes to push the tempo whenever possible. In SEC games, South Carolina averages 22.0 fast-break points, accounting for 27.1 percent of their 81.1 points per game. Henderson has scored 6.3 of those fast-break points per game and has assisted on another 4.3 for a total of 48.1 percent (10.6 per game) of the fast-break points.

Henderson ranks 17th in the country with an SEC-best 5.9 assists per game, along with four games of eight or more assists, including one double-double. Her assist numbers rise to 6.7 in SEC play. She also ranks third on the team in scoring with 12.5 points per game on the season and 12.6 points per game in SEC games.

MSU’s Rickea Jackson, who was named to the Wooden Award Midseason Top 25 watch list, leads the team in scoring with 15.8 points to go along with 4.3 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game. The sophomore forward has had games of 30+ twice, and 10 games with 20+ points during her career. Her 10 20-point games rank 11th in MSU history since 1999.

MSU also has a top post player in Jessika Carter who ranks 21st among active Division I players in career field goal percentage (.558). She owns 16 career double-doubles, including five this season, and leads the team in rebounding (9.2 rpg) and blocks (1.4 bpg) and is second in scoring (15.6) this season.

Redshirt junior guard Myah Taylor has the nation’s 13th best assist/turnover ratio at 3.40.Taylor has been a major factor in State’s offense this season, accounting for more than 25 percent of MSU’s total scoring in five games, including being responsible for 50 percent (30 of 60) of State’s points against Ole Miss.

Opportunity for growth

On display tonight will not only be the style and play of both coaches but an opportunity for Staley to rise higher in the college coaching ranks, and for McCray-Penson in particular to build on her first-year success; something Staley both applauds and champions despite the rivalry.

“Well, Nikki wants to play fast like we want to play fast,” said Staley when asked if McCray-Penson’s style rivals hers. “She also has a knack for the defensive side of the ball.”

Staley also applauds McCray-Penson and her latest accomplishment, referencing how much it is “to come and coach a team that has had so much success over the last few years.

“And they have a fan base as well that is very passionate; how much pressure is that for a first year head coach at any program?” Staley said. “It’s hard. It’s hard. She knew the cupboards weren’t bare. They had sustained success, she know the pressures of coming in and having expectations… but that’s also something that Nikki, you know, doesn’t shy away from.

“She’s used to being under pressure. We were under pressure for a long time here at South Carolina so she knows what that looks like, she knows what the game is supposed to look like and she’s going to continue to coach her team,” Staley continued. “So, Nikki has got to be given the opportunity to allow her young ones to grow; the ones that have to play an integral role in their success.”

Part of that growth continues tonight when former teammates, colleagues, co-workers and current friends meet on opposing sides of the court.

Written by Dorothy J. Gentry

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