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Mississippi State advances in 2014 SEC women's basketball tournament: Missouri’s Bri Kulas stands out

Mississippi State claimed a win in the first round of the 2014 SEC women's basketball tournament, but it was Missouri's Bri Kulas who stood out by showcasing WNBA potential.

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Duluth, GA - Kendra Grant did something that Mississippi head coach Vic Schafer had been clamoring for her to do: show her greatness when the "lights" are the brightest.

And in the first game of the SEC tournament, Grant did just that and then some. She came off the bench to spark Mississippi State to a 71-68 win over Missouri.

"I've been waiting for about a month to talk about her," said a smiling Schafer. "Kendra, she's been so good in practice, but we get her in ballgames, the lights come on, (and) she'll get in foul trouble for whatever reason. Obviously she does so much for us offensively - we need her.

"Hopefully she can come back tomorrow and put together another good run."

The game was nip and tuck to start the as both teams were looking to establish their wills. The Bulldogs (19-12) clearly wanted to take advantage of their clear size advantage especially with 6-foot-4 junior post Martha Alwal. By the 14:18 mark, she had six points and two blocks as Mississippi State had a 12-8 lead.

The Tigers (17-13) quickly countered by using their wide open offense to spread out Mississippi State. With the Bulldogs up 17-16, Missouri went on a 10-0 run to regain control of the game with the largest lead of the first half 26-17.

But once the Bulldogs' super sub, Grant, entered the game, Mississippi State immediately regained the momentum that was lost.

"We need her (Grant) to be like this every night," said Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer. "As I told her now, I'm glad she showed up tonight because we desperately needed her the way they were playing us in the first half with the point-four zone."

As Grant began to score on an array of mid-range jump shots, not only did her confidence increase, it seemed to permeate to the rest of her teammates. By halftime, the Bulldogs were up 38-34.

And while the first half was Grant's coming out party, the second half was her encore as she scored Mississippi State's first seven points of the half. But once again, Missouri responded as their underclassmen rose to the occasion as their two starters - Kulas and Lianna Doty (point guard) - were out with foul trouble.

They showed resiliency, especially two freshmen: Jordan Frericks and Sierra Michaelis. Neither one played like this was their first SEC women's tournament - both made timely plays. With 14:10 left to play in the second half and clinging to just a one point lead, 46-45,

Michaelis got a steal which led to a Frericks layup. Then Frericks got another steal and then Michaelis nailed a three-pointer to give Missouri their largest lead of the second half at six. But Missouri's youth finally caught with them in the end as they just couldn't pull out the victory.

And while Grant was special for the Bulldogs, the best player on the floor was Missouri's Bri Kulas - she showed exactly why she is being talked about as a WNBA prospect.

The 6-foot-1 guard/forward did just about everything for the inexperienced Tigers, a team with four freshmen and five sophomores. Not only was she the leading scorer for the game with 18 points, she also led everyone with 11 rebounds.

Every time things would seem to go in flux for Missouri, she was the calm before the storm. Kulas has an extremely explosive first step which allowed her to get into the lane at will. But what stood out beyond her amazing talent was her leadership. Many players have talent, but lack the leadership intangibles that can make them truly great players.

"I am so proud of [our team]," said Missouri head coach Robin Pingeton. "(But) it starts with Bri Kulas. She's a great leader for us all season long."

"Whenever we're having a tough time in practice or (the) game, (Kulas) huddles us up and says we need to regroup, calm down, that we got this," said an emotional Michaelis. "She's amazing really."

Missouri also got 16 points from Michaelis and 10 points from Morgan Eye. And for Mississippi State, Alwal had 16 points and Breanna Richardson had 12 points.

For more on WNBA prospects, check out our 2014 WNBA Draft prospect watch storystream.