Mississippi State University women's basketball head coach Vic Schaefer was interviewed live on ESPN after his team was chosen as a No. 2 seed Monday for this year's NCAA Tournament. Fans gathered in Humphrey Coliseum for a Selection Show watch party with Schaefer and the team sitting in the front rows. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
Rhea Ainsworth, 10, of Madison, was one of hundreds of fans who attended a Selection Show watch party at the Hump on Monday.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
The stadium is jolted into cheers as they see themselves live on ESPN at the Humphrey Coliseum during the Selection Show on Monday.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
March 14, 2017 10:10:55 AM
It was 4:15 Monday afternoon and a group of 40 people huddled under the alcove at Humphrey Coliseum to escape the cold rain as they waited for the doors to open at 4:30.
After a one-hour autograph session, about 300 fans settled into three sections of the Coliseum to watch the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament Selection Show on the big screen, with the Bulldog players and coaches occupying the first two rows.
As expected, seventh-ranked Mississippi State will be among the 16 teams to host the first two rounds of the NCAA Women's Tournament. The Bulldogs will play Troy in the opening round at 1:30 p.m. Friday.
MSU, seeded second in the Oklahoma City Regional, is coming off yet another record-setting year, having established new standards for wins (29) and conference wins (13), finishing second in the Southeastern Conference in both the regular season and conference tournament.
Yet for all those achievements, nothing says more about the state of the MSU women's basketball team than those 40 folks shivering outside to get into the Hump.
Like virtually every coach in the country, MSU coach Vic Schaefer is quick to acknowledge his fans, to call them "special" and emphasize the importance of the relationship between the players and their fans.
Fans may hear it so often that it has almost an obligatory ring to it. They might even be tempted to dismiss it as no more than a coach's cliche. But fans like 10-year-old Rhea Ainsworth of Madison, there at the front of the line Monday afternoon waiting for the team to autograph a poster for her, offer proof of the depth and sincerity behind Schafer's words.
"We are excited to he hosting again because of our fans, the passion they have," Schaefer said. "Our players feel that. For the players, it's not just in saying hello; it's looking them in the eye, connecting with them. It's hugging their baby or hugging their mama, taking a picture. They do it in a genuine way because they are genuine kids."
When Mississippi State tips off its first round game Friday, it is likely almost all of those who attended Monday's watch party, along with 5,000 to 6,000 more, will turn out to cheer on the Bulldogs.
Ainsworth will not be among them, however.
Instead, she'll be in a Jackson hospital, recovering from her third stomach surgery in seven years.
"She's having surgery Wednesday and she'll be in the hospital for three or four days," said Rhea's dad, Danny Ainsworth. "We thought this would be give her a little lift." "
The Ainsworths are not season-ticket holders. Danny, his wife, Kim, and Rhea attend maybe four or five games a year.
Earlier this year, during the week of the Alabama game, Danny decided to treat Rhea to a visit to campus.
"I thought it was going to be just a couple hours' visit," he said. "I emailed Coach Schaefer and asked if maybe Rhea could get a shirt autographed while we were down there. He said, 'Sure.'"
When they arrived, they got much more than an autograph. Schaefer invited them to make a day of it, watching practice and meeting the players.
"I never imagined that," Danny said. "It's not like we were season-ticket holders or important people. I was really blown away."
Rhea's favorite player is Dominique Dillingham, a gritty senior guard from Texas. As Rhea was waiting for the players to arrive for the autograph session, she noticed Dillingham approaching the autograph table. Their eyes met and Dillingham abandoned her seat, walking down the corridor to give Rhea a hug.
"Sure, I remembered her," Dillingham said. "She came to practice and hung out with us a while back. It's pretty cool. We love our fans."
Much as he has throughout his five years at MSU, Schaefer takes pains to note that the relationship between the team and its fans is beyond convention. His team, noted for its spirited play, draws on the fans' passion and energy.
"To have our fans provide what they do for our players is very cool," Schaefer said.
And, no, he was not surprised to learn that fans were lining up to get into the Coliseum before the doors were opened.
"When I get here an hour-and-a-half before the game and I can't find a place to park .... when the head coach of the team can't find a parking place, that tells you something about how the fans have embraced what we're doing," Schaefer said. "It's a problem I don't mind having, that's for sure."
■ DePaul (26-7) vs. Northern Iowa (24-11), 11 a.m.
■ Mississippi State (29-4) vs. Troy (22-10) , 1:30 p.m.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is email@example.com.
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