January 09, 2015

STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) Senior Jerica James has developed a little ritual during Mississippi State's current winning streak, calling her grandmother a few minutes before tipoff for a couple words of encouragement before taking the court.

Hopefully she has a good cellphone plan: The minutes are starting to pile up.

Undefeated No. 14 Mississippi State has won a school-record 18 straight games to start the season, including its first three in the Southeastern Conference, as the Bulldogs work to join the league's current elite like South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Kentucky.

''We've moved past just trying to improve and now we're trying to be great,'' James said.

Third-year coach Vic Schaefer, 53, has guided Mississippi State to consistent improvement since he arrived on campus in 2012. The Bulldogs have a pedestrian history by SEC standards, with only six NCAA tournament appearances, but improved from 13-17 in Schaefer's first season to 22-14 last year.

Now Mississippi State is on a nearly two-month roll that started with a season-opening win over Mercer on Nov. 14 and continued on Thursday with a 72-57 victory Arkansas.

A group of talented newcomers - led by star freshman Victoria Vivians - has joined an experienced nucleus to form a deep team. Schaefer will use as many as 12 players on a given night depending on game situations.

The 6-foot-1 Vivians scored more than 5,000 career points at tiny Scott Central High School in central Mississippi and said she had scholarship offers from several of college basketball's elite programs. Instead, she chose to stay close to home.

''Everybody wanted to know why I was going to State. They said `You're never going to win any games,'' Vivians said. ''So to prove people wrong feels good.''

Vivians leads the team with 15.6 points per game. Schaefer said her hard work and fearless demeanor have been just as important as her obvious talent. The team's second-leading scorer, guard Morgan William, is also a freshman.

''Sometimes what you don't know doesn't hurt you,'' Schaefer said. ''Our young kids are confident. They love to play, they play hard and they're very talented.''

James said Vivians has quickly earned the respect of the veterans because of her willingness to pass, defend and do whatever is necessary to win.

''She definitely still has that scoring mindset, but she knows she has other outlets as well,'' James said. ''I remember her first assist - she was so excited. Her coming in, it's been beautiful. I love playing with her because she has that drive.''

Schaefer said the early success this season is encouraging because he doesn't feel the team is close to playing its best basketball.

The team's leading scorer from a season ago, 6-foot-4 senior center Martha Alwal, had back surgery during the offseason and is slowly playing her way into shape. Another key player from last season, senior Kendra Grant, has also eased back into the rotation after dealing with injuries.

Schaefer says he still expects big production from both of them by the end of the year. In the meantime, the coach is pleased with their attitudes.

''I have to give our (veterans) a lot of credit, especially some of our seniors who have started their entire career,'' Schaefer said. ''Now they're coming off the bench and they've very unselfish. They're givers and they just want to win.''

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Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP

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