COLLEGE BASKETBALL: Alwal wins Gillom Trophy
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Martha Alwal is flourishing as an NCAA Division I college basketball player.
Alwal, a Worthington native, became the second Mississippi State University Bulldog to win the C. Spire Gillom Trophy, the award that recognizes the top female college basketball player in Mississippi.
"Winning this trophy is really humbling to know that I can win something of this caliber," Alwal said. "I'm just a sophomore and it means a lot to me because I'm still learning how to play basketball at this level."
The winner of the trophy is selected annually by a vote of print, radio and television media. Players from Mississippi's three NCAA Division I women's basketball programs -- Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Southern Mississippi -- are eligible to win the award.
The C. Spire Gillom Trophy was presented to Alwal at a luncheon March 11 at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum in Jackson, Miss.
The first MSU player to capture the award was Alexis Rack in 2009 and 2010.
"I have to give credit to Coach (Vic) Schaefer and his staff for wanting to make me the go-to player by taking me aside and developing my skills," Alwal said. "I wouldn't be where I'm at right now without them because they stay on me by motivating me."
Alwal, a 6-foot-4 sophomore center, led the Southeastern Conference in rebounding (9.7 per game, 292 boards) and ranked second in the league in blocked shots (2.6 per game, 78 blocks) in her second year. While topping Mississippi State in scoring (12.1 per game, 364 points), she had an SEC best 16 double-doubles, 10 of which came during league games.
Schaefer doesn't allow Alwal to cut any corners in practice. Alwal said he can be an intense motivator and, sometimes, she has been the cause for the team to be running sprints.
"Anyone who knows me, knows that I shy away or even break down from yelling," Alwal said. "But I know this is something that I really need because I can use it as motivation to improve."
Alwal said she was surprised to learn Schaefer wanted her to be MSU's leader.
"When Coach Schaefer said he 'needed me to be the go-to player who was averaging 14 points and 10 boards a game,' I thought he was crazy," Alwal said. "But the coaching staff did a lot of one-on-one work with me and my post moves and other individual stuff."
It has been quite an improvement for Alwal, who was a role-playing rebounder as a freshman, averaged 7.2 rebounds, 5.7 points and 1.1 blocked shots last season. She turned the corner this year by shooting more accurately from the field (40 to 45 percent) and at the free-throw line (60 to 79 percent) as her court time increased.
"Martha has come a long way and still has a long way that she can go," Schaefer said. "In my opinion, she is not close to being as good as she can be. I see her as a work-in-progress who has made some big strides."
The Bulldogs finished this season at 13-17 overall and 5-11 against the SEC, losing to Alabama in the opening round of the conference tournament under Schaefer, who just completed his first year at the helm.
Schaefer took the reigns of the Mississippi State women's basketball program last November, a few months after Sharon Fanning, who recruited Alwal, retired from 17 years of guiding the Bulldogs and 37 years of coaching overall.
Alwal maintains a close friendship with Fanning, who still attends every MSU home game and travels to some of the road contests.
"People always ask me why I came here, out of all the other places I could have picked, and I tell them it's because Coach Sharon Fanning stood out the most to me. I could see that she really cared about me. I wanted to play for someone who cared for me as a person and not for just being a basketball player."
Alwal said Fanning still inspires her, albeit from a distance away from the bench.
"I am very, very proud of Martha's progress," Fanning said. "As you watch a young lady or young man come to college, they mature when they take on responsibility and set their goals higher.
"Initially, I felt there was a real upside for Martha. As she begins to realize what her capabilities are and continues to set goals higher, the sky is really the limit for her."
Fanning said she was drawn to Alwal because of non-basketball reasons.
"I anticipated early with Martha that she was going to be an extra-special student and an extra-special person," Fanning said. "It was not just for her talent as a basketball player."
According to Schaefer, the key to Alwal's improvement has been her ability to make better decisions in games.
"It has been her mental toughness and learning how to compete," Schaefer said. "That's the biggest thing that I have had to teach since coming here to Missississipi State."
Schaefer believes the SEC is the toughest league for women's basketball in the nation. Considering the SEC is home to the eight-time NCAA champion Tennessee Lady Vols, he might be right.
"The Southeastern Conference is like the Triple-A for the WNBA, so everything Martha accomplished this season came against the very best players in the nation," Schaefer said. "Just look at home many WNBA rosters are stocked with former SEC women's basketball players."
The SEC competition Alwal has been facing has a reputation for delivering bumps and bruises inside the lane, the place where the former Trojan center calls home.
"I would rather shoot the ball than post-up," Alwal said. "In the offseason, I need to work on becoming a dominant post player. If I can do that, it will make me into a triple threat.
"People see post players on TV and they don't realize what goes on underneath the basket," Alwal said. "It's a real battle during a game because we're getting beat up every night."
Schaefer is excited to keep developing Alwal, who he said has unlimited potential and two years of eligibility left.
"Martha is still not considered to be a physically aggressive player, but she is learning how to be that," Schaefer said. "Once she gets the physical part down, I think that's when Martha's game wil go to an even higher level."
Alwal, who set Worthington records for rebounds (928) and blocked shots (284), netted 1,079 points and an MSHSL Class A State Tournament berth for the Trojans in 2009 before graduating from WHS in 2011.