January 27, 2016 10:35:19 AM
Coming off a strong performance in front of a record crowd at Humphrey Coliseum, there would be no better way for the Mississippi State women's basketball team to take the next step than to make more history Thursday night.
On Sunday, then-No. 10 MSU lost to No. 2 South Carolina 57-51 before a crowd of 10,626, which exceeded the listed capacity of Humphrey Coliseum by 126. The crowd was the biggest in MSU's history, the largest to see a women's basketball game in the state of Mississippi, and the fourth-largest in the history of the Hump.
Even though the Bulldogs fell short, it wasn't due to a lack of effort or not enough support. The Hump was rockin', the music was pumpin', the Bulldogs were taking charges and frustrating the Gamecocks. Unfortunately, a season-low field goal shooting percentage of 27.1 percent was too much to overcome.
No. 13 MSU needs all of those fans back at 8 p.m. Thursday when it plays host to No. 19 Tennessee. Don't let the Tennessee's ranking or record (12-7, 3-3 Southeastern Conference) fool you. The Lady Volunteers always will be relevant in women's basketball because longtime coach Pat Summitt was a trail blazer. She made it cool to want to wear orange and to watch women's basketball because her teams were relentless, especially on the offensive boards, and played with a fire and a swagger that dared you to even think about being competitive with them.
MSU hasn't been able to hang with Tennessee for a majority of the 36 meetings in a series that dates back to 1986. The Bulldogs have been able to stay within nine points of the Lady Volunteers in only nine of those matchups. They are still looking for their first victory in the series.
"That is always motivation playing against Tennessee if you have never beaten them," former MSU point guard Katia May said. "When you start playing, you have nothing to lose, so you might as well play. Regardless of whether you beat them this year or next year, Tennessee is always going to be the team to beat because they are Tennessee.
"It is just different. It is Pat Summitt and everybody else who has been a part of Tennessee. The legacy they have, it is bragging rights to say you have beaten them."
The Bulldogs have come close. There was a 67-63 loss in 2014 in Starkville. There also was a seven-point loss in 2009 in Starkville. MSU's best chance for a victory came from 2000-04 when it had former All-Americans LaToya Thomas and Tan White. In that span, MSU lost six of seven games to Tennessee by eight points or less. Two of the games were in the SEC tournament, including a 76-75 loss in 2003 in Little Rock, Arkansas.
This year is different. You could argue that by rankings alone MSU should be the favorite, but Tennessee has played a tougher non-conference schedule, so it should be accustomed to playing in a hostile environment and used to getting an 'A' game from another ranked opponent.
You also could argue MSU has been close several times in the past two seasons at home -- against LSU, Kentucky, and South Carolina -- and that the odds say it is due for a victory.
Don't believe either argument. Believe May and Diamber Johnson, another former MSU point guard. Both players were in attendance earlier this month to watch MSU beat Arkansas 80-55 in Humphrey Coliseum. Both players have had their highs and lows against Tennessee. They know how much respect Tennessee has earned throughout the years. They also know how much progress MSU has made under head coach Vic Schaefer and his staff in three-and-a-half seasons.
In fact, May said the tide already is turning and that MSU is creating a new brand that is appealing to younger players.
"Instead of being, 'Oh, we are about to play Tennessee, it will be, 'Oh, we are about to play Mississippi State,' " May said. "Coach Schaefer has done a heck of a job. I am proud to have been a part of it."
Johnson agrees, but she doesn't think MSU has taken a "huge step" because the Bulldogs have grown each year since Schaefer's first season in Starkville -- a 13-17 campaign in 2012-13.
"They have added something every year," May said. "Before when you used to say Mississippi State, it was like, 'Ehhhhhhhhhhh.' Now it is like, 'Mississippi State.' You better watch out. It is that type of hype now. It isn't even hype. That is just what it is. It shows how much State has grown and changed since coach Schaefer has been here."
That's why it is time. It's time for MSU to take the next step after a 27-win season in which it won all of the games many expected it to win. Wins against LSU, Kentucky, and Duke would have put MSU on a faster track than even Schaefer expected his team to be on in year three. In year four, MSU has worn the bull's eye on its back and has taken the best shots from most every opponent. It came close to beating then-No. 6 Texas in Austin, Texas, in December, and then earned an impressive victory against then-No. 20 South Florida in Jacksonville, Florida.
But Tennessee is different. There is an aura and an intimidation factor MSU will have to avoid if it wants to make history. The Bulldogs also will have to play with the tenacity they showed against the Gamecocks for 40 minutes. Efforts like MSU had against Southeastern Louisiana, Missouri (first quarter), and Georgia aren't going to be good enough. After talking about embracing the expectations for the past year-and-a-half, it is time for MSU to take the next step and win a game it should win.
MSU should want to play with that kind of effort because there is a good chance a performance like that will earn this team a place in history. The Bulldogs also should want to play like they did against the Gamecocks because it is the way basketball is supposed to be played. That is something Schaefer has tried to convey to his players since he arrived. You can see it in how junior Dominique Dillingham gets beat off the dribble and then recovers to beat her player to a spot and takes a charge. It is sacrifice. It is commitment. South Carolina coach Dawn Staley saw it Sunday and was impressed.
"Vic does a great job. He loves our game," Staley said. "He loves his team. He loves when basketball is being played the way it is supposed to be played, and he loves when people come and see it because when you work hard and you put a product on the floor that people can be proud of, you want to show them off. It is like a new baby. You want to take pictures, and he wants to show off his baby, and his team is his baby. They played extremely well. They made themselves a national powerhouse, and it is great. I am glad they are in our league."
Staley admitted the crowd at Humphrey Coliseum "affected" her team. She also said she thought South Carolina would handle the atmosphere better. That is a credit to MSU's fans. They accepted a challenge presented to them in October 2015 to pack the Hump and support a program on the rise.
Now it is MSU's turn to accept its latest mission: Beat Tennessee. Throw the all-time record out. Drown out the sounds of "Rocky Top," the unofficial fight song for Tennessee. Instead, lift cardboard cutouts of Christopher Walken over your heads and demand more cow bell. Ask the DJ at the Hump to play "Don't Stop Believin' " one more time.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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