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GAMEDAY: No. 13 Kentucky WBB down in Starkville to take on No. 12 Mississippi State

Kentucky WBB will look to continue the University’s winning streak to open up 2021.

The No. 13 Kentucky Women’s Basketball Team (8-1) is down in Starkville to start the new year as they take on the No. 12 Mississippi State Bulldogs (6-1) later on Sunday at 1 p.m. on ESPN2. The ladies will have the opportunity to close out a perfect start to 2021 for the University, as the Kentucky Football Team earned a Gator Bowl win over N.C. State on Saturday shortly before the Men’s Basketball Team rallied to take down Mississippi State in double overtime later in the afternoon.

Our own Jack Pilgrim is down in the wonderful and joyous city of Starkville for the weekend (lucky fella!), covering the UK-MSU double-header between the men’s and women’s teams. Of course, I’ll be providing remote coverage from the comfort of my couch in Lexington, so you shouldn’t miss a second of the action for today’s game. With that being said, let’s quickly break down what we know about the highly-ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs and their first-year head coach.

Head coach: Nikki McCray-Penson (first season at MSU: 6-1)

(Career record: 59-41 – spent the previous three seasons at Old Dominion)

A player-product of Pat Summit during her college years at Tennessee, Nikki McCray-Penson is in her first season as the head coach at Mississippi State after three successful seasons at Old Dominion out of the Conference-USA.

*Quick side note: McCray-Penson did not play alongside Kentucky head coach Kyra Elzy while they attended Tennessee. Elzy’s first season was in 1996, one year after McCray-Penson graduated in 1995.*

McCray-Penson built an impressive résumé prior to her arrival in Starkville, as she has been elected into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame (2012) and National High School Hall of Fame (2015). Her personal accolades start at the college level, with two SEC Player of the Year awards as a Lady Volunteer, before continuing into her professional career when she was named a three-time WNBA All-Star and two-time Olympic Gold medalist, and then as a coach, where she helped win a national championship as an assistant coach at South Carolina before taking the head job at Old Dominion.

While coaching the Lady Monarchs, McCray-Penson led them to back-to-back 20 win seasons for the first time since 2006-08. She was also named the 2020 C-USA Coach of the Year before accepting the MSU position.

Players to know

There are two names, in particular, that you’ll need to keep an eye on for Mississippi State, and they both tower over the Kentucky frontcourt: 6-foot-5 junior Jessika Carter and 6-foot-2 sophomore Rickea Jackson.

Both Carter (16.7) and Jackson (16.6) are averaging over 16 points per game, which easily leads the team. Outside of them, no other Bulldog averages double-figures in scoring. Carter and Jackson were both nominated in the preseason to the Naismith Trophy Watch and Wade Trophy Watch, awards handed out to the nation’s top player (Rhyne Howard is also on these lists).

Carter is one of the elite post players in the entire nation, using her superior height and talent to shoot 62.7 percent from the field (19th across all of Divison I) this season while hauling in nearly eight rebounds per game. She’s a menace on the defensive end, recording a team-high 11 blocks in seven games played, and is already fourth in program history in total number of rejections. Carter is strictly an inside scoring threat (she has not attempted a 3-pointer yet this season) and has failed to hit double-digits in points just once this year.

Next to Carter in the frontcourt will be 6-foot-2 Rickea Jackson, who was tabbed as a preseason All-SEC First Teamer ahead of the 2020-21 tipoff. As a first-year player last season, she was one of the top rookies in the country, winning SEC Freshman of the Week honors on three separate occasions while posting averages of 20.3 points and 8.3 rebounds during the 2020 SEC Tournament. ESPN ranked her as the No. 13 player in all of women’s college basketball coming into the season.

The third most-important player to know for Mississippi State is 5-foot-7 redshirt junior Myah Taylor. She averages just 6.7 points per game, but dishes out over four dimes per game and is one of the premier point guards in the country. Taylor was named to the 2020 Nancy Lieberman Award Preseason Watch List for the country’s top point guard. Her 30 assists are countered by just six turnovers for an outstanding ratio of 5.0–tops in the SEC. Taylor has a knack for drawing charges and collecting steals, so staying aware of her location at all times will be key for the Wildcats.

Carter, Jackson, and Taylor are the three returning starters from last season’s team that made it to the SEC Tournament Championship before falling to No. 1 overall South Carolina.

Rounding out the rest of the starting five will likely be another big body, 6-foot-4 redshirt junior Sidney Cooks, along with 5-foot-8 sophomore guard JaMya Mingo-Young. Cooks and Mingo-Young are averaging 9.0 and 8.4 points per game, respectively, affecting the game in different ways for the Bulldogs.

Cooks is a threat to stretch the floor and arguably Mississippi State’s most dangerous outside shooting threat. She’s shooting a respectable 43.6 percent from the floor overall, but an impressive 13-31 (41.9 percent) clip from distance. Mingo-Young is an incredibly versatile guard who makes her impact felt far beyond field goal stats. She leads MSU in both assists (36) and steals (12) while also snagging 6.1 rebounds per outing, second-most on the roster.

Off the bench, McCray-Penson brings in a super-sub by the name of Aliyah Matharu, a 5-foot-7 sophomore guard who averages the third-most points among her teammates at 9.7 per game despite playing the sixth-most minutes. She’s a microwave scorer if there ever were one in the SEC and one who likes to try and score from all three levels.

The final player to watch for Mississippi State is, of course, also 6-feet in height. 6-foot-0 first-year guard Madison Hayes is corraling 5.4 rebounds per game in just 18 minutes per outing while shooting 48 percent from the field and 36.4 percent from beyond the arc.

McCray-Penson can also bring 6-foot-6 Yemiyah Morris and 6-foot-5 Charlotte Kohl off the bench if any of her starting post players get into early foul trouble. A complete contrast to the Arkansas team that Kentucky faced a few days ago, Mississippi State is one of the tallest teams in the nation.

Numbers to know

Mississippi State boasts an impressive 6-1 record on the season, but against middling opponents.

The Bulldogs’ lone loss this season came against an unranked South Florida squad in overtime, 67-63, down in Tampa Bay. It was only their third outing of the season–they’ve had two games canceled due to COVID-19 protocols–but it was arguably the toughest test they’ve faced thus far. The rest of MSU’s 2020-21 schedule has come against teams such as Jackson State, New Orleans, Troy, Southern, and Central Arkansas.

In all fairness, they’ve been demolishing those smaller programs by an average of 28 points per outing but lost to South Florida (who is 7-1, I should point out, with their only loss coming to top-ranked Baylor) and barely beat Georgia 69-62 to open SEC play. Mississippi State has simply not yet played a team of Kentucky’s caliber. The Bulldogs started the season as the No. 6 team in the AP Poll, but were picked to finish fifth in the SEC’s preseason Coaches Poll. After losing to South Florida, they dropped down to No. 12 and have stayed there since.

Mississippi State is one of the nation’s leading shot blocking units (5.1 blocks per game is good enough for 39th among all DI schools) with an offensive emphasis on moving the ball. McCray-Penson’s squad dishes out 17.7 dimes per game, a mark that ranks among the top 25 in the nation. They’re going to rebound like hell and punish opposing defenses in the interior. Over 58 percent of their points come from 2-point range, an above-average figure compared to the rest of the country.

I would take the defensive stats from Mississippi State with a grain of salt, though, considering their weak early-season schedule. While they do hold opponents to an elite figure of just 31.3 percent shooting from the floor, Georgia and South Florida aren’t exactly offensive juggernauts. Kentucky has shot over 44 percent from the field over their previous six games.

Keys to a Kentucky victory

Make Mississippi State shoot free-throws. The Bulldogs are shooting just 62.6 percent from the charity stripe thus far this season, a gaudy mark compared to the rest of the SEC. They only have two players, Taylor and Matharu, who make at least 70 percent of their freebies. Carter and Jackson, the team’s top two scorers, shoot just 63.9 and 59.1 percent from the free-throw line, respectively. Whenever MSU has a decent look at the rim in the paint, Kentucky needs to foul and foul hard to prevent potential and-1 situations.

Fight, fight, fight on the glass. Even with two impressive post presences that Kentucky hasn’t had in a couple of years (Dre’Una Edwards and Olivia Owens), they still don’t have the overall height to match up evenly in that area with MSU. McCray-Penson will trot out three players all over 6-foot-2 in the starting lineup with four more six-footers waiting on the bench. All that length has made the Bulldogs an elite defensive rebounding team. Kentucky is going to have to work extra hard on the glass to steal a few extra possessions.

Remember, tipoff is scheduled for 1 p.m. EST on ESPN2.

Article written by Zack Geoghegan

Recruiting reporter for KSR. Follow me on Twitter: @ZGeogheganKSR